Despite being a college town, Evanston, Ill., historically has not had a reputation as a bastion of liberalism. But the city is now the focal point of the expanding U.S. debate over banning (or taxing) plastic bags. Alderman Coleen Burrus started the local debate earlier this year when she suggested a 5-cent-per-bag tax, like the one in Washington, D.C. But now the city is debating a ban on both plastic and paper bags instead. Will it fly? News reports from last night's City Council meeting seem to indicate that there's still room for debate. "For every person who has said they are against it, there is someone else who has said they would shop in Evanston to support it," said Catherine Hurley, sustainable programs manager for the city. Todd Ruppenthal of the Central Street Merchants Association told a reporter, "We are not against a greener Evanston. What we are against is something we believe is very small-sighted. This is the head of the pin of what could possibly be done." I'm a former resident, so I was surprised when this issue first surfaced in Evanston. I thought it would disappear right away. When I went to school there, the city was known as a pretty conservative place. (It is still home to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the city was "dry" until 1984). But now I'm wondering if Evanston will be the first of many Midwest communities where government officials will debate the merits of single-use grocery bags. Until now, most of the industry's efforts to combat bag bans has focused on boosting recycling programs in places like California, where the pressure was most intense. But it looks like bag makers had better step up that effort nationwide. One local report from the Chicago area today quoted the industry's record on bag recycling to date:
Only 1.5 percent of plastic store bags are recovered through recycling programs in Illinois, a dismally low figure compared to the recovery rates for aluminum cans, plastic bottles, glass jars and most other recyclables, according to a 2009 study contracted by the Illinois Recycling Association.If the response to taxes and bans is going to be to push recycling, that 1.5 percent recycling rate had better improve right away.