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Edwardsville Approves Shopping Bag Fee. Will Other Metro East Cities Follow Its Lead?

Mike and Vicki Blunt, of New Douglas, load their vehicle with groceries in single-use plastic bags at Schnucks in Edwardsville in March. The couple usually bring their own reusable bags, but on this day, they bought too many groceries and needed more.
Teri Maddow | Belleville News-Democrat
Mike and Vicki Blunt, of New Douglas, load their vehicle with groceries in single-use plastic bags at Schnucks in Edwardsville in March. The couple usually bring their own reusable bags, but on this day, they bought too many groceries and needed more.

Edwardsville will become the first city in downstate Illinois to require retailers to charge for single-use plastic and paper shopping bags to help protect the environment.

Edwardsville City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved an ordinance that was first proposed by a grassroots organization called Bring Your Own Bag Glen-Ed. Members argued that single-use bags pollute land and water, harm wildlife and human health and waste resources.

“This action by our council is not going to save the planet, but it’s going to impact on Edwardsville, and it will start to address a problem,” said Ward 6 alderman Craig Louer.

The ordinance will go into effect April 1, 2020. Stores larger than 7,000 square feet will be required to charge 10 cents per bag and post signs at doors and cash registers. Smaller retailers, restaurants, pharmacists and other specified vendors are exempt.

“Every action that we take reflects who we are and what we value as a community, and I think that the message we’re sending is that we want a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable Edwardsville,” said Ward 4 alderman S.J. Morrison. “And I think that’s going to be a model, not just for our citizens, but for the region.”

The ordinance’s main goal is encouraging people to bring reusable bags when they go shopping, he said.

Supporters celebrate victory

Cheers erupted from the crowd of about 60 people in City Council chambers after the vote, which took place in part because the Illinois General Assembly failed to pass statewide legislation to reduce the number of single-use shopping bags.

Edwardsville officials took matters into their own hands, following in the footsteps of Chicago, Oak Park, Evanston and Woodstock, which have approved taxes, fees or bans on bags.

Bring Your Own members spent more than a year doing research, attending meetings, making presentations, lobbying officials and circulating petitions.

Sheila Voss, left, and Mary Grose are members of Bring Your Own Glen-Ed, a group that persuaded Edwardsville City Council to pass an ordinance requiring retail stores to charge 10 cents for single-use paper and plastic shopping bags.
Teri Maddox | Belleville News-Democrat

“We were personally — and as a group — doggedly motivated,” said member Mary Grose. “We just weren’t going to stop.”

The ordinance was opposed by Edwardsville/Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce and some retailers who worried that it might hurt business.

Chamber Director Desiree Bennyhoff did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

“The chamber fully supports a voluntary participation program and would dedicate a page on our website featuring member businesses that are operating with environmental sustainability at the forefront,” she told the Edwardsville Intelligencer. “We do not, however, support a regulatory mandate on businesses to comply with the proposed ordinance.”

Scott Schnieder, co-owner of Chef’s Shoppe, attended several city meetings and voiced concerns about the ordinance. Ultimately, his store won’t be affected because it’s smaller than 7,000 square feet. He declined comment Tuesday.

Opponents inspire changes

All seven aldermen spoke in favor of the ordinance at the City Council meeting, along with Grose, Girl Scout Kate Voss, Sierra Club member Chris Krusa and Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton, who formerly supported voluntary instead of mandatory programs to reduce the number of single-use shopping bags.

No one spoke against the ordinance.

Aldermen thanked Bring Your Own for its hard work and business leaders for constructive criticism that led them to make changes to the ordinance, such as the exemption for small stores.

“I think by not demonizing but bringing in the business community has helped quite a bit,” said Ward 1 alderman Chris Farrar.

The ordinance will affect more than 20 large retailers. It allows them to keep the 10 cents collected for each single-use bag to help cover administrative and record-keeping costs.

Kate Voss, 13, testifies before Edwardsville City Council Tuesday night, encouraging aldermen to vote for an ordinance requiring retailers to charge a fee for single-use shopping bags.
Teri Maddox | Belleville News-Democrat

“We didn’t want this perceived as a tax,” Morrison said. “It truly isn’t a tax. It’s a fee imposed on single-use bags. You can’t get out of a tax. You can avoid a fee by bringing your own bag. And it’s not a money grab by the city. We are not trying to raise revenue. We’re trying to change behavior.”

Ward 3 alderwoman Janet Stack got a big round of applause at the meeting when she suggested the city go even further to reduce plastic waste, starting with restrictions on single-use water bottles and drinking straws.

Schnucks faces unknown

The ordinance will apply to Schnucks, sending the St. Louis-based grocery chain into uncharted territory. None of its 115 stores are in cities or states with fees, taxes or bans on single-use shopping bags, spokesman Paul Simon said Tuesday.

Schnucks has two stores in Edwardsville, but the company recently announced plans to close one in November because of “poor sales.”

“We don’t really have a position on the proposed ordinance,” Simon said before the City Council vote. “We do comply with all laws and ordinances of the municipalities and communities in which we operate.”

Simon said he didn’t have figures on how many paper and plastic bags are distributed at Schnucks stores or how much it will cost to administer the new fee and keep records.

Additional employee training may include bagging procedures, he said.

Schnucks offered a more robust argument against bag fees earlier this year, when the Edwardsville ordinance was in its early stages. The company released the following statement:

“At checkout, Schnucks offers our customers the choice of plastic or paper bags, and most choose plastic. We also sell reusable bags at a very reasonable price. Certainly, we would prefer not to inconvenience our customers by limiting their options or charging them more; however, Schnucks will always remain in compliance with the laws of the municipalities in which we operate.”

State legislation dies

Bring Your Own Glen-Ed proposed the idea of a local fee on single-use shopping bags more than a year ago. As it moved through the City Council committee process, leaders agreed it should be imposed in both Edwardsville and Glen Carbon to keep shoppers from crossing the border to avoid it.

The movement hit a snag in April, when Glen Carbon announced that it couldn’t pass an ordinance because it wasn’t a home rule city and didn’t have legal authority.

Bring Your Own turned its attention to two bills in the Illinois General Assembly that could have accomplished their goal on a statewide level. One provided for a 7-cent tax on single-use bags. The other involved a 10-cent fee.

“Given the uncertainties related to timely passage of a statewide bill, we will seek to revisit the local proposed ordinance if policy action stalls or otherwise dissipates in 2019,” the group wrote in a letter to Edwardsville officials at the time.

The state’s legislative session ended with no action on either of the two bills and little hope for success in the future.

“I think the different parties had different interests,” Grose said. “There were the manufacturers — the plastics industry — and the environmentalists, and then there was the city of Chicago, which wanted to be exempt (since it already had a bag tax).”

Movement is international

Environmentalists say plastic bags end up in lakes, rivers and oceans, kill marine life and animals that eat or get tangled up in them and endanger humans because they break into smaller pieces and get ingested through water, food and air; and that paper-bag production pollutes air and wastes trees, water and energy.

In the past decade, dozens of countries and hundreds of cities have enacted fees, taxes or bans to reduce the number of bags, particularly those made of petroleum-based, thin-ply plastic. Californians approved a statewide ban in 2016.

Such efforts have met with resistance from bag manufacturers, including South Carolina-based Novolex, which launched a Bag the Ban project that now is being promoted under the name American Progressive Bag Alliance. It argues that fees, taxes and bans hurt consumers and don’t really help the environment.

“We believe in a better solution, one that increases the recycling and reuse of grocery and retail bags across the country without banning products or taxing families,” its website states.

Some large retailers with metro-east stores have stopped distributing shopping bags altogether, requiring customers to bring their own. That includes Goodwill, Aldi’s and Sam’s Club.

Morrison addressed the topic in his weekly emailed newsletter to residents of his ward.

“For the last 50 years, single use bags (plastic AND paper) which are issued at the point of sale, have become an immense problem in our country,” he wrote. “The single use plastic bags are used on average for 12 minutes and take more than a thousand years to degrade.

“They are not only filling landfills, they get caught in trees and fences, blow along highways and roadways, add clutter to our communities, and create life-threatening situations for wildlife. Waste management agencies, like our very own Republic Services, have serious problems with them jamming the mechanisms of their sorters and separators.”

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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