City Council passes plastic bag recycling law

Chicago groceries and drugstores will have to begin collecting and recycling plastic shopping bags under an ordinance passed unanimously by the City Council yesterday.

With this law the city joins a handful of other major cities, most notably San Francisco and New York, with regulations designed to curb the proliferation of the ubiquitous plastic bags, which environmentalists say take up to 1000 years to biodegrade.

Under the measure, stores that provide plastic bags and earn more than a quarter of their gross receipts from groceries or medicines will be required to provide recycling bins for their customers and arrange for transport of the bags to a recycling facility.

In addition, retailers must distribute bags with printed messages that advertise the availability of on-premise recycling.

Violators could face fines of up to $300 a day.

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 program's cost.

The city will report every two years on the program's effectiveness, beginning in December 2010.

Retailers will have six months to comply; stores with less than 5,000 square feet will get nine months.

The sponsors, Ald. Margaret Laurino (D-39) and Ald. Ed Burke (D-14), modeled the bill on a similar New York measure. The major difference is that New York's legislation encompasses a variety of retailers by incorporating stores that are a minimum of 5,000 square feet and chains that have five or more outlets.

After San Francisco's Board of Supervisors adopted a law banning disposable plastic bags in March 2007,  Burke followed suit with a similar measure, but it languished in committee after meeting stiff opposition from the retail industry.

The new law, while more politically palatable than a ban,  drew concerns from industry and environmental advocates when the environment committee considered it last week.

Spokesmen for recycling groups complained that it imposed an undue burden on so-called "mom and pop" stores while letting larger retailers like department stores and electronics stores off the hook.

Grocery and drug stores make a logical focus for the legislation, because they generate the most repeat visits, said Laurino.

Burke acknowledged that the law is "not a complete solution, but a step in the right direction."

"Hopefully, it will spur the federal government to do something about it and will help to educate people," said Burke.

Brian Granahan, spokesman for Environment Illinois, says that while a San-Francisco-style ban is preferable, the new law is "a good first step."

He said having the law on the books will make it easier to persuade the big box retailers and department stores to consider recycling the bags voluntarily.

"That might be the next logical step here," says Granahan. "Extending the impact of the law through that kind of private pressure."

In the meantime, Granahan says, consumers should focus on using reusable cloth bags for their shopping.

In other news, the council postponed a vote on a resolution that would place the legislative body on record as opposing a military strike on Iran.

Mayor Richard M. Daley indicated strong displeasure with the resolution.

"The problem that I see is that if you pass a resolution, and Iran attacks Israel for example, we should sit back and not do anything?

Daley also objected to the City Council taking on a question of foreign policy.

"We have an election coming up," said Daley. "We have Obama running…He will be the president; let him make those judgments. Passing a resolution like that puts a lot of burden on his candidacy. We should not be injecting that into [the campaign].

"Besides that," the mayor added. "We're not at war with Iran. I've never heard of this."

In other business, the council:

*Repealed the controversial two-year ban on serving fois gras in restaurants.

*Tabled an ordinance that would have required many event promoters to obtain licenses at a cost ranging from $500 to $2,000. The measure, a response to the E2 nightclub tragedy of 2003, would also have required promoters to get fingerprinted and would have set the minimum age for obtaining a promoter's license at 21. Alderman Eugene Schulter (D-47), chairman of the licensing committee, says he wants to give interested parties more time to discuss the measure.

*Approved a $15 million payment to settle 21 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits that resulted from a fire at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington on October 17, 2003. The city's insurance plan will contribute an additional $35 million toward the settlement. The plaintiffs alleged that a series of mistakes were committed by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) and the fire department. Six people died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in the southeast stairwell of the building. An additional seven were admitted to the hospital after they were trapped in the stairwell for 90 minutes and lost consciousness.