Evanston bag ban off to spotty start
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Evanston bag ban off to spotty start

Aug 12, 2023

Three of Evanston’s major retailers, the two Jewel-Osco grocery stores, and Valli Produce all provided plastic bags for customer purchases on Tuesday, the very first day that was illegal.

The ordinance banning single-use, point-of-purchase plastic bags that took effect Aug. 1. is supposed to block all businesses, regardless of size, from using point-of-purchase plastic bags at the cash register, and as well as non-compostable produce bags in the fruit and vegetable aisle.

It’s all part of Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which, according to the city, “aims to eliminate petroleum-based, single-use plastics …,” to help reduce waste and pollution.

But Evanston Now discovered that the Jewel on Chicago Avenue, the larger Jewel on Howard Street, and Valli Produce at Dodge Avenue and Dempster Street were all still using plastic check-out bags as if the new ordinance did not even exist.

Each store was giving customers the same old option … “paper or plastic,” even though the plastic option no longer exists legally.

The plastic bags at all three stores stated, “This is a REUSABLE BAG designed for at least 125 uses,” and included instructions on how to wash the bags’ insides.

But besides the hard-to-believe concept of using the same plastic bag 125 times, these bags also violate the new Evanston city code.

The ordinance says a reusable bag is “specifically designed and manufactured for multiple re-use and is sewn and made of cloth fiber, or other machine washable fabric.”

Or, to be blunt, you can call a plastic bag a reusable bag, but here, it’s not.

Kara Pratt, Evanston’s Director of Sustainability, told Evanston Now that “The City of Evanston’s definition is intentionally written to exclude that kind of bag.”

Jewel-Osco had it wrong at the front door.

Signs declared “EVANSTON BAG TAX Goes into Efffect August 1, 2023”, and that “all Plastic and Paper bags used to bag Customers’ groceries will be subject to the new Evanston Bag Tax of .10 per bag.”

Except that’s not completely true.

Plastic bags are not supposed to be taxed because they’re not supposed to be there.

“Stores,” said Pratt, “are not allowed to use those bags.”

The paper bag portion of the sign is correct. There is now a 10-cent bag tax which took effect the same day, but only it only applies in large locations (over 10,000 square feet – about the size of a large drugstore).

The city’s hope is that instead of paying 10-cents for a paper bag, customers will choose to save money by bringing their own reusable cloth sacks, keeping more cash and helping the environment.

The Health Department is responsible for enforcing the new ordinance. Pratt told Evanston Now she will inform that department of the grocery stores’ use of plastic.

Punishment is “not less than … $100 per offense”, and “Each day that a violation continues shall constitute a separate and distinct offense” per merchant. Licenses could be suspended or revoked if a store fails to comply after being notified.

That latter draconian penalty seems unlikely, even though the manager of Valli (who only gave his name as “George”) said “we’re running down our [plastic bag] inventory that we’ve already paid for. We’re being as compliant as possible,” and should drop plastic when they run out. He said the city has been informed.

“George” also told Evanston Now it’s actually the customer who should be responsible for bringing a truly reusable bag, even if the store offers plastic.

But that’s not the law.

As for the 10-cent bag tax, the city is not expecting big bucks.

Pratt said only about 30 stores citywide are 10,000 square feet or more, so most places don’t have to worry about the bag tax.

Pratt said the city will take in only about $100,000 from the tax, which, as already stated, is designed more to discourage paper bag usage than raise money.

In fact, while half of the 10-cent fee goes to the city for environmental education and the solid waste fund, impacted stores keep the other nickel.

Of course, if they’re still providing plastic bags, but imposing the tax the stores are collecting a nickel per on something they should not be using.

It’s unclear what will happen to the money that stores may have improperly collected.

Jewel seems to have gotten the message. After being contacted by Evanston Now, the company looked into what was going on.

Corporate spokesperson Mary Frances Trucco emailed us, saying, “After further clarification about the plastic bag ordinance by the City of Evanston, Jewel-Osco is in the process of correcting the issue. We apologize for the oversight.”

And, an early evening check of the Chicago Avenue store revealed that, indeed, the plastic bags were gone, even from self-checkout. Paper bags were there instead.

As for the ultimate big box store, the one which is even known for “Target bags,” … well, they got it right on day one.

Plastic bags were gone. In their place, paper bags with the proper amount of recyclable content (at least 40% post-consumer recyclables) that the city now requires.

But those recycled paper bags are still subject to the .10 tax, which prompted one customer at the Howard Street Target to tell Evanston Now that now, she’ll be “going down to her basement and pulling her cloth bags out of retirement.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio. More by Jeff Hirsh