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Evanston officials respond to concerns about bag tax plan

Evanston small business owners reiterated previously mentioned concerns about the city’s proposed single-use bag tax, saying adding the tax on top of the cost of shopping in the city would deter both customers and business owners.

Councilmember Devon Reid proposed a 15-cent tax, an increase from the initially proposed 10-cent amount, on single-use bags that would also ban Evanston businesses from dispersing plastic bags after 2024. He said while the referral is aimed at changing consumer habits away from disposable bags, it would also help make budget space for the city’s infrastructure projects.

“I might as well send you a check each month because I’m not going to (impose) that fee on my customers,” Susanne Ali, owner of Down to Earth Rock Shop, said. “My customers are already complaining about how they can’t afford to shop in Evanston (because) our parking fees are so high. They’d rather go to Wilmette or Skokie where there are no parking fees.”

Ali said the city shouldn’t be surprised if businesses consider relocating to nearby suburbs if the tax gets approved. It’s something she said she’ll think about next time she considers relocating.

“We can’t nickel and dime our customers to death. You’re going to end up losing more businesses here in Evanston,” Ali said. “If you go to Downtown Evanston, you’re going to see a lot of vacant storefronts. People are not coming back … We moved our store about eight years ago to the other side of the street but the next time we go to move, I’ll seriously consider other suburbs.”

Reid said if a bag tax isn’t implemented, taxpayers will likely pay the same amount through other avenues, like property taxes.

“You’re paying for it one way or another,” Reid said. “Don’t try to use this as a way to (shield) your responsibility as an Evanston resident. We have to make sure we are funding the necessary services so we have the resources to do the important stuff like taking care of (marginalized) folks.”

Business owners say the tax will increase labor demands — which many already find difficult to keep up with — by requiring businesses to undergo point-of-sale system modifications, additional training and revamp bookkeeping processes.

“For us, it is an issue of administrative (difficulty),” Ellen King, owner of Hewn bakery, said. “Environmentally, if I thought it’d make a big dent, I’d be all in support.”

Reid said five of the 15 cents collected per bag would be retained by the retailer to help curb these costs. The referral states seven cents would go to the Solid Waste Fund and three cents toward enforcement efforts.

Reid said the proposal is a matter of changing consumer habits toward reusable bags as an environmental precaution rather than a money grab for the city. He said having a tax in place would help shoppers adjust to reusable bags before the 2024 plastic bag ban would go into place.

The University of Chicago Energy and Environment Urban Lab found Chicago’s disposable bag tax had an immediate impact on the city’s environmental initiatives, saying it reduced disposable bag use and increased reusable bag use within the tax’s first month. Chicago’s current bag tax equates to seven cents per bag.

Before Chicago’s disposable bag tax, 82% of the city’s consumers used at least one disposable bag per trip but within a year of implementing the tax that dropped to 28%.

Reid said a simple plastic bag ban won’t do enough as paper bags also have a negative environmental impact.

“We need to start shifting away from disposable single-use items, and that includes paper bags, for more durable goods and outlets that reduce our contributions to landfills,” Zimmerman said. “Even compostable items going to landfills (isn’t good), they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Zimmerman also said the referral’s anti-plastic bag position would help address staffing concerns by alleviating the amount of necessary labor while also curbing recycling cart contamination and safety concerns.

“Plastic bags and plastic film are undoubtedly (among) the highest contaminate contributors in recycling carts,” Zimmerman said. “It clogs up machines, increases processing costs for recovery facilities to operate and can be a safety concern. It wraps around machines that require (employees) to get into and risk their lives to potentially get that material untwined.”

Councilmember Eleanor Revelle said she understands the referral’s purpose but worries about its timing as she believes many businesses are still recovering from COVID-19 shutdowns. She proposed that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients, restaurants and gift bags be exempt from the single-use bag tax — in addition to the already existing pharmacy, newspaper and fresh produce bag exemptions.

The committee passed the SNAP and gift bag exemption amendments while the restaurant exception failed. The committee instructed city staff to explore wording the gift bag exemption so it is only applicable to small businesses and not big-brand retailers like Whole Foods.

Reid said adding these exemptions would defeat the referral’s purpose. He said excluding SNAP recipients would put them at a disadvantage by leaving them ill-prepared for the proposed 2024 plastic bag ban and disproportionately impact Evanston’s economically disadvantaged populations.

“We know our city is economically segregated. I don’t want to see a bunch of (these) bags in the eighth or fifth wards because it is more likely SNAP recipients live in those areas and we want to make our entire community cleaner and nudge everyone in the same way,” Reid said. “We want to make sure everyone has the same triggers to change their behavior. A SNAP recipient (wouldn’t have to pay the tax) out of pocket if they remember a reusable bag.”

The Human Services Committee voted in favor of sending the referral to the City Council with Revelle opposing. City Council will likely have two readings of the referral before taking a final vote.

Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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