August 5, 2017 – Plastic Behavior

You know you’re not going to have a good day when you see this headline over your morning coffee: Half of All Plastic That Has Ever Existed Was Made in the Past 13 Years. Then you read on and it’s as bad as you feared:

Now, for the first time, researchers have published a sweeping, public, and in-depth accounting of all plastic that has ever been made in the entire world. The number is so big as to defy human comprehension: 8,300 million metric tons since 1950. Of this, 6,400 million metric tons has outlived its usefulness and become waste; 79 percent of that waste is sitting in landfills or the natural environment, 12 percent has been incinerated, and just 9 percent has been recycled.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

9.1 billion – Tons of plastic ever produced
6.9 billion – Tons of plastic waste produced
5.4 billion – Tons of plastic discarded in either a landfill or the environment
662 million – Tons of plastic recycled

Yup. Still bad.

Which brings us to Chicago, which has had its own battles with plastic over the years–but primarily film plastic. You know, plastic bags. I’m not even going to get in to the horrific Blue Bag recycling program, undertaken by Richie the Deuce and which took far too many years to be consigned to the recycling heap of history.

The focus for more than a decade has been on single-use plastic bags which have become ubiquitous in retail. In fact, I won’t bore you with the appalling numbers, except for this one:

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

And Chicago is no exception. So, around 2008, City Council noodled around with the idea of actually recycling plastic bags. They came up with an ordinance and everything. I know because I was a small part of that process, sitting in meetings as a member of the Chicago Recycling Coalition and hoping that some good would come out of the effort. In the end, CRC tepidly supported the measure because it was at least something. But we called it “a swing and a miss” because Council would not even consider a fee on single-use bags.

Yeah, even then we were talking about some kind of fee, which studies showed was almost guaranteed to change consumer behavior and reduce plastic bag use.

Fast forward to 2014, when City Council got it wrong again, passing an ordinance that banned single-use bags…but left plenty of loopholes:

When Chicago’s plastic bag ban kicks in Aug. 1, many shoppers accustomed to carting groceries home in those ubiquitous plastic bags will instead walk away with … nicer plastic bags.

Several retailers preparing for the citywide ban on the thin plastic bags bemoaned for cluttering landfills and littering parks, streets and waterways said they plan to offer customers reusable plastic bags that comply with the city ordinance, and don’t plan to charge a fee.

And that’s exactly what happened in 2015, when the plastic ban went into effect.

A year into that mess, the aldermen finally got their act together and took the hint that perhaps some kind of fee for single-use bags was in order. Thus, on February 1 of this year, a seven cent fee was assessed for every single-use bag–plastic or paper–that left a retail establishment, with the exception of food and certain other businesses. The result?

The number of plastic and paper bags Chicagoans used to haul home their groceries dropped 42 percent in the first month after city officials imposed a 7-cents per bag tax in an effort to keep the disposable sacks out of area landfills.

Whaddaya know? The thing that environmental groups said all along would work…is the thing that worked! Go figure. There is the small drawback that five cents of that fee goes down a black hole into the City of Chicago coffers (slush fund, anybody?), but two cents goes back to the retail operations.

Jordan Parker has been one of the folks behind the scenes and in front of the cameras who has been pushing for more enlightened policy regarding plastic bag use. She began the group Bring Your Bag Chicago, which is a tiny organization that has had a large influence on plastic bag policy in Chicago. Parker was on The Mike Nowak Show just last August, as the utter failure of the 2014 law was becoming apparent. What a difference a year makes.

There’s always going to be some blowback, however, against new taxes. Just the other day, Parker posted this on the Bring Your Bag Chicago Facebook page. She wrote about it: “The following screenshot is from a Chicago resident’s social media page. (Names have obviously been removed.) This is how some people are reacting to the 7-cent optional bag tax in Chicago. At least it’s well-written and entertaining.”

Quick! Get some help for that poor guy! He’s stuck in the 1960s!

We think Jordan Parker, who is dealing with a bronchial issue, will crawl out of her sick bed and join us in the studio this morning. (I better not catch anything.) With any luck, we’ll also discuss the recent campaigns to reduce our straw and plastic bottle use, both spearheaded by the Shedd Aquarium.