Would you like plastic or more plastic?

Guest post by Moses Viveros, SUST class of 2018

The Law of Unintended Consequences occurs when “A” is supposed to make “B” happen but instead, “C” happens. On August 1st 2015, Chicago’s Bag Ban Ordinance went into affect. The ordinance was supposed to make it illegal for chain retailers to hand out single use plastic bags in an attempt to keep plastic from polluting the environment. When the ordinance went into effect, we didn’t see retailers ditching the single use plastic bags, we saw them handing out free “reusable” bags made from more plastic. So instead of keeping some plastic out of landfills, we are now putting more plastic into landfills.

Post Ban Shopping Bag at Jewel Osco Source: jewelosco.com

Post Ban Shopping Bag at Jewel Osco
Source: jewelosco.com

The new bags must be able to carry 22 lbs and be able to be used for 125 shopping trips in order to be allowed under the new ordinance. But so far, consumers have done anything but reuse them. Alderman Moreno of the 1st Ward, who introduced the new ordinance, is already working on an amendment to make it illegal for stores to hand out the new thicker bags. Ald. Moreno said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that “while the thicker bags may meet that minimum requirement, the retail chains are flouting the spirit of the law by willfully adding more plastic to the environment rather than working to change consumer behavior. Since the stores aren’t planning to charge customers for the bags, it’s likely shoppers will throw them out after just a few uses.”

I recently went to Jewel Osco after the bag ban and found it a little ironic that I was given a plastic bag that had the words “I’m saving the planet, what are you doing” printed on it. Jewel’s solution to the bag ban ordinance is like adding gasoline to an out of control fire. I understand the reasoning behind wanting to ban bags in Chicago – every year Americans toss out more than 100 billion plastic bags and most of these bags end up polluting our environment and endangering wildlife. There is a gyre of plastic debris bigger than the state of Texas floating around in the Pacific Ocean. A solution towards fixing the bag ban in Chicago is not to tax consumers for using the plastic bags, but rather, to make the grocery store and packaging corporations responsible for cleaning up these bags.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, photo author Lindsey Hoshaw.  Flickr

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, photo author Lindsey Hoshaw. Flickr

In Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, she brings up a concept called “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR). Basically, the company that makes the product or packaging must deal with it at the end of its lifecycle. In theory, this added cost would encourage corporations to explore alternatives for plastic and paper bags that will not be as harmful to the environment.

Chains like Costco and Aldi have gone years without handing out any kind of free shopping bag and they are thriving. Many people love to use the argument that a plastic bag ban will keep away potential retailers from opening within city limits and that people will go across city lines to do their shopping where they can get free bags. But chains like Aldi and Costco have proven that not giving out free bags does not negatively effect business. Businesses need to take notes from these chains and hopefully one day we will no longer be asked for “paper or plastic” at the checkout stand.

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