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Nanny State of the Week: Chicago aims to toughen ineffective plastic bag ban

By   /   February 1, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Six months after passing a plastic bag ban, the city of Chicago is now being told by activists to step-up enforcement against those crinkly bandits blowing through the streets.

That’s life in the Nanny State: If a ban doesn’t work, it just means the government hasn’t been heavy-handed enough to force people to obey.

The Chicago Tribune this weekend detailed the ongoing fight, led by a local activist named Jordan Parker. She spends her free time alternating between lobbying city officials to increase penalties for plastic bag users and standing outside her local Jewel grocery story to accost her neighbors about their choices.

“I actually cheer for people at Jewel,” Parker told the Tribune, when she sees they have brought reusable bags. “I’m that weird, eccentric bag lady.”

Such is the state of political affairs in America in the mid-2010s. We’ve given the self-described weird, eccentric bag ladies control over the levers of local government, letting them tell the rest of us what to do.

And let’s be clear, here: there’s nothing wrong with being weird or eccentric. Let your freak flag fly, do your own thing, make yourself happy.

Just don’t impose your weird, eccentric ways on the rest of us by getting the government to be your muscle.

READ MORE: California becomes first state to ban plastic bags

That’s what Parker and her friends have done. They started a grassroots group called Bring Your Own Bag Chicago, encouraging people to use reusable bags when shopping instead of packing the city’s landfills full of once-used thin plastic bags. The group’s Facebook page says it is “about creating a cultural shift away from disposables, towards reusables.”

That’s a noble goal, and grassroots groups encouraging people to live more conscientious lives is not state-sponsored nannying.

Then, the city government got involved.

Pushed by activists like Parker, Chicago approved a plastic bag ban last year. It went into effect Aug. 1

But the bag ban itself is almost comically complicated. It applies only to businesses identified as “chain stores” and gives a pass to retail locations with less than 10,000 square feet. Stores are still allowed to provide plastic bags to customers, as long as the bags are made of a thicker, supposedly reusable, plastic. The city asked businesses to charge a fee for those bags – as a way to discourage their use – but the fee is not mandatory, so free plastic bags at the check-out counter are still completely legal.

There’s also no enforcement mechanism of any kind – the city asks people to report violations by dialing 311, but aside from activists like Parker, its hard to imagine how many people out there are really taking time out of their busy lives to bust the neighborhood 7/11 for handing out plastic bags.

And when it comes to enforcing the law, you’d think Chicago has a few other things as higher priorities.

If someone gets busted with an illicit bag, the fine can be as high as $500.

READ MORE: Austin officials determine plastic bag ban to be a success, based on ‘unequivocal anecdotal evidence’ 

Finally, the city is not providing any statistics on retailers who have switched from plastic to reusable bags, the Tribune reports. So any assessments of the bag ban’s success are based completely on anecdotal evidence — anecdotes like the one provided by Tanya Triche, vice president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Aside from a small number of shoppers and businesses who have embraced the new law, Triche said, the ban has done little except increasing retailers’ costs – those new, thicker plastic bags are more expensive, of course.

The activists are back at it again, now pushing for Chicago to toughen penalties in the hope of convincing people to do as they are told. Parker told the Tribune she wants to see mandatory “bag fees” for all customers using plastic.

Alderman Proco Moreno, who sponsored the plastic bag ban, is now calling for an amendment to increase the fines to as much as $3,000.

If that doesn’t work – and since there’s no metric to measure the ban’s “success,” how can anything work? – expect $1 bag fees and even higher fines to be proposed next.