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More exemptions possible for bag tax

You are probably about to get nickelled-and-dimed by the City of Evanston.

A proposed 15-cents-per-bag tax for retail sales (paper bags and plastic) is working its way through the necessary committees on its way to City Council.

If the tax is approved, the measure also bans plastic bags in about 18 months. The paper bag tax would remain.

The intent is to get customers to use recyclable bags of their own.

On Wednesday night, members of the city’s Economic Development Committee went over the plan.

No votes were taken, no decisions were made. However, with several council members on the development panel, the discussion pointed towards possible changes once the measure gets to council later this month.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th), the development committee’s chair, said, “I’m inclined to include an exemption for restaurants” on the tax.

Restaurant owner Dan Kelch told the panel that the bag fee is “an onerous proposal” which could become an administrative nightmare with so many meals now being ordered via services such as Door Dash and Uber Eats.

A restaurant exemption was actually included in the tax ordinance as originally written by staff, but for some unknown reason it had been taken out prior to Wednesday night’s meeting.

So it would have to be put back in by council, if that’s how the sentiment runs. The tax, with whatever exemptions council may include, would then take effect immediately.

But there’s the other part of the proposal as well — the complete ban on point of sale, single-use, plastic shopping bags, as of April 2024.

After that, only taxed paper bags could be provided by a store at checkout, for customers who do not bring their own reusable bags. The paper bags would have to be made of at least 40% recyclable materials.

Ald. Devon Reid (8th), who proposed both the tax and the plastic ban, said “we have an environmental crisis and plastic bags are part of it.”

Development panel member Eli Klein said he was “worried that this is a bad time to be trying this,” as small businesses are coping with a “retail apocalypse” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Klein said shoppers might just go to Skokie or Wilmette where there are fewer regulations, and no bag taxes.

However, Reid said the goal of the tax is not to raise revenue, but rather to help pay for environmental services and education.

Seven of the 15 cents would go to the city’s Solid Waste Fund, three cents to the Health Department for enforcement, and five cents per bag would stay with the retailer for administrative expenses.

The plastic bag ban would actually be a strengthening of an existing 2014 city ordinance, which tried to ban such bags used by large retailers, such as grocery and “big box” stores.

But, as you’ve seen no doubt during your shopping trips, plastic bags are definitely provided.

How can that happen considering the restrictions? Well, the city’s Sustainability Coordinator, Cara Pratt, told Evanston Now those large stores “have circumvented the ban,” by using plastic bags which are thicker than the size of those which were prohibited.

Both the bag tax and the plastic bag ban next go to city council’s Human Resources Committee on Dec. 5, and then to full council on Dec. 12.

As currently written, there are exemptions from the tax for small paper bags which contain pharmacy prescriptions, bags which hold loose produce items, and newspaper bags.

City staff also want to exempt those receiving SNAP (formerly called food stamp) benefits from paying the tax.

The tax measure’s sponsor, Ald. Reid, said that at first, he did not want to exempt SNAP recipients, in order to “give them a nudge” to use recyclable bags.

However, federal rules prevent SNAP benefits from paying any fees or taxes (other than sales tax on food), so unless exempted from the tax, SNAP recipients would have to pay the bag tax out of their own pockets.

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