Recycling advocates pan city's plastic bag law

A City Council committee today approved an ordinance requiring many grocery and drug stores to recycle plastic bags.

Some recycling proponents, however, say the ordinance doesn't go far enough. They question the decision to include mom and pop stores while exempting large department stores and big box retailers from the measure's requirements.

One of those advocates is Mike Nowak, spokesman for the Chicago Recycling Coalition.

"I can tell you that the CRC will not be popping champagne corks tonight" over committee approval of the ordinance, he says.

The ordinance addresses the growing problem of non-degradable plastic bags, which litter landfills, use up millions of barrels of petroleum and kill birds and marine animals. It will not take effect unless the full City Council approves it May 14.

Under the measure, stores that provide plastic bags and take more than a quarter of their profits from groceries or medicines will be required to provide recycling bins for their customers.

In addition, retailers must provide bags with a printed message that tells shoppers that they can recycle their bags on the premises.

Violators could face a $300 daily fine.

Retailers will also be required to report estimates annually to the Department of Environment on the weight of plastic bags they collect, the location at which recycling occurs, and the cost of the program. The department will report every two years on results of the program, beginning in December 2010.

Operators of stores with less than 5,000 square feet get a break -- they'll have nine months to comply with the ordinance after its approved, versus six months for larger retailers.

While small stores will be affected, department stores like Macy's and electronic stores like Best Buy, will not have to recycle bags.

Nowak says the ordinance should have required recycling by those stores.

"The failure to include these stores, to use a baseball metaphor, is a swing and a miss," he says.

Ald. Margaret Laurino (D-39), who co-authored the ordinance, says it's a logical "first step" that can be expanded later.

"Some of the businesses…for example Macy's or Best Buy, were not included because, in my mind anyway, when I think about recycling bags, Macy's doesn't pop up in my mind," says Laurino. "You know, Jewel, Dominick's, Tony's ... that's where I'm getting most of my plastic bags from."

Ald.  Joe Moore (D-49) is pressing for a complete ban on plastic bags, like one recently implemented in San Francisco.

"Ultimately, I think that this is somewhere we should seriously consider going," says Moore.