As of June 2020, five Illinois municipalities – Chicago, Evanston, Oak Park, Woodstock, and Edwardsville – have passed laws designed to curb the use of plastic bags. Evanston is the only Illinois community with a definitive ban on single-use plastic bags. The other four municipalities discourage people from using plastic bags through a 7 or 10-cent/bag fee. Chicago initially introduced a plastic bag ban in 2014, but it was repealed and replaced with a fee in 2016. As concerns about the environmental impacts of single-use plastics spread, many communities in Illinois are considering adopting similar laws, and Illinois legislators have proposed state-level legislation focused on plastic bags and single-use plastic cutlery, straws, and Styrofoam.
This summer, we have been busy interviewing active citizens, elected officials, and public employees in these five communities to understand why they took an action on the plastic bag issue, how they designed their local ordinances, and what challenges they have faced during implementation.
Our research project is still in progress, but we would like to offer a sneak peek at what we have learned from our interviews. According to these experienced community leaders, here are five things you should keep in mind if your city is thinking about adopting a plastic bag ordinance:
(1) Do your homework and engage community members. According to the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance,[i] by March 2022, 543 communities in the United States will have enacted plastic bag laws. Most of these municipalities have their ordinances posted online, and city officials or community leaders may be willing to talk with you about their experiences. If you are interested in passing a plastic bag law in your community, research what has been done elsewhere and be prepared to cite specific examples when your elected officials have questions about the costs and benefits. Create a draft ordinance based on your research and be prepared to negotiate changes based on community feedback.
Educate community members about the problems caused by plastic bags and why you think a law is the best way to address this problem. Build a broad base of support within your community by engaging personally with key stakeholders, especially business owners. In the words of one study participant, always “find the face.” All of the people we interviewed stressed the importance of research and community education as first steps.
(2) Choose the strategy that is right for your community. If you choose to develop a plastic bag ordinance, it is important to tailor it to your community. As you think this through, ask these questions:
Should this be a ban or a fee or some combination of both? The first instinct is often to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags. After all, if the goal is to reduce their use, why not get rid of them altogether? However, there is some initial evidence that in situations where plastic bags are banned and paper bags are provided for free, paper bag usage increases. Although paper bags are biodegradable and recyclable, there are also environmental concerns about the resources required to manufacture them. If you choose to impose a plastic bag ban, consider pairing this with a fee (or ban) on alternative bags (e.g. paper or thicker plastic that can be re-used a few times) to reduce the use of these as well. The goal is to get people to switch to sturdy, non-disposable bags that can be re-used hundreds of times.
Four Illinois communities have opted for a fee instead of a ban. Some study participants found that people in their communities were more supportive of a fee because it would offset the costs to retailers and would still leave consumers with a choice. In the words of one participant, “people like it to be a choice, not a mandate.” This also insures that consumers think about whether they want to pay the fee and (ideally) become more aware of their plastic use with every trip to the store. For cities that opt for a bag fee, there are important decisions to make about where this money will go and how it will be used. We discuss this a bit more below.
Which retailers should be included or excluded? Most municipalities have included a minimum square footage requirement (e.g. greater than 5,000 square feet) so that the ordinance applies only to large retailers who (at least theoretically) have the funds and infrastructure to make the necessary changes to their bag purchasing practices and point of sale (POS) systems. Some study participants told us that this compromise was necessary to get started, although most thought that it would be better for the law to apply to all retailers in the long run (out of a sense of fairness and a desire to reduce bag use as much as possible). None of the Illinois ordinances apply to restaurants, although carryout diners are major users of single-use plastic bags. Consider how broad you want your impact to be and how the strategy could evolve over time if an initial law is successful.
Which types of bags should be included or excluded? All Illinois ordinances exempt thin plastic bags used for produce, meat, dry cleaning, newspapers pharmaceuticals, etc. Evanston’s ordinance specifies that its ban applies to single-use, disposable plastic bags, but exempts “re-usable” plastic bags at least 2.25 mils thick. Some ordinances impose a fee only on plastic bags; others also charge for paper bags. We’ll get to why these decisions are important when we discuss loopholes and unintended consequences. Think carefully about which bags count and which ones are left out and how this might impact behavior.
(3) Fees do change behavior, but this isn’t about revenue generation. Initial evidence suggests that fees do indeed reduce the use of single-use plastic bags in cities and countries that have introduced these laws. All four Illinois municipalities with a plastic bag fee direct a portion (at least 2-cents) to the retailer to offset the costs of providing alternative bag options and adjusting POS systems to collect the fee. The remainder of the fee goes to the city (except in Edwardsville, which directs the entire 10-cents to the retailer). Fees in Chicago go to the general fund, but in Oak Park and Woodstock, the money is earmarked specifically for environmental projects. If some of the money goes to the municipality, then it is technically considered a tax (rather than a fee), which can impact public perception. However, community leaders in Oak Park and Woodstock thought it was important for these funds to go to environmental projects.
All of the people we interviewed stressed that the goal of these laws is to use a fee to change human behavior, not to generate revenue. The research in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics demonstrates that humans are profoundly loss averse; people will switch to re-usable bags or use fewer single-use bags in order to avoid “losing” even a small amount of money. Although 10-cents seems nominal, people do adjust their behavior to avoid this loss, at least at first. As people get used to the fee, increases might be necessary to trigger loss aversion.
The bottom line is that bag fees work (in the sense that they do reduce the use of single-use plastic bags). But - because the ultimate goal is to reduce plastic bag use as much as possible - municipalities cannot become dependent on this revenue. If you charge a fee, you should plan for this funding source to shrink over time as people adjust to using fewer bags.
(4) Beware of loopholes and unintended consequences. As is the case with most policies, people will look for ways to exploit loopholes, and these may need to be corrected through revisions to the ordinance. In Evanston, where disposable, single use plastic bags are banned but “re-usable” plastic bags at least 2.25 mils thick are allowed, some retailers have introduced thicker plastic bags as an alternative. Some community leaders expressed frustration that these thicker plastic bags seem to undermine the goal of the ordinance. In communities outside of Illinois where no fee was charged for paper bags, paper bag usage increased to levels that could also be of environmental concern. Some retailers in Illinois initially worried that shoppers might switch to stores in neighboring communities to avoid plastic bag laws, although there is no evidence that this has happened on a scale large enough to significantly impact sales. These loopholes and unintended consequences are avoidable, but only if community leaders think through these issues carefully and design smart policies.
(5) Build in mechanisms to assess impact and effectiveness. Although hundreds of communities in the US have adopted plastic bag laws, very few cities have designed processes to systematically assess whether these laws are effective at reducing plastic bag use and whether they have unintended consequences (e.g. for retailers). Before you enact a law, make a plan to collect baseline data on plastic bag usage. After the law is enacted, design a process to collect data at regular intervals to determine whether plastic bag usage is declining, whether sales have been impacted, and other issues of concern to local community members. Set goals for plastic reduction to keep your community focused on this issue. Consider partnering with a local university or hiring external consultants (possibly using revenue generated by a fee) to do this research. Nearly all of the people we interviewed intended to do a better job of this in the future and wished that they had discussed this more at the start.
We look forward to writing more about the results of this study. Stay tuned for our full report and initial publications in Fall 2020. If you are interested in being interviewed as part of our research project or in learning more about our results, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
 Note: This is an industry-funded lobby group that tracks plastic bag legislation in the United States. We cite this source because their count of municipalities that have passed these laws is more up-to-date than available scholarly sources. This should not be read as an endorsement of their position on the value of these laws.
If you have questions, feel free to connect with us and request more information!
Dr. Styles, Chair of the Environmental Studies Department, received her Ph.D. in Environmental Anthropology from the University of Washington in 2011. She also holds an M.A. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Anthropology and Environmental Studies. Megan’s research focuses on sustainable agricultural development, environmental justice, and conservation issues in East Africa and the United States. Her most recent book, Roses from Kenya: Labor, Environment, and the Global Trade in Cut Flowers, is an ethnographic examination of the social and ecological effects of cut flower farming near Kenya’s Lake Naivasha.
Dr. Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration. She received a PhD in Public Policy from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, an MPA from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and a BS in Geophysics from China University of Mining & Technology. Her main research interests include the health impact of brownfield redevelopment, land use decision making, MPA education, and nonprofit management.