Amid the grousing over the county’s new tax on sweetened beverages, the six-month anniversary of Chicago’s disposable bag tax passed largely unnoticed last week.
The tax, designed to curb the use of disposable bags that often wind up in landfills, drew plenty of griping when Chicago retailers began ringing up the extra 7 cents per paper or plastic bag Feb. 1. When shoppers pay for a bag, 5 cents goes to the city, and 2 cents to the retailer.
But early signs suggest it is nudging Chicagoans — even those irked by the idea of paying for something once handed out for free — to kick, or at least curtail, the disposable bag habit.
Sue Carzoli, 52, of Chicago’s Near North neighborhood, says she’s built up a stockpile of reusable bags, though she occasionally forgets to carry them.
“I am getting better about it,” Carzoli said. “I just hate having to pay. It feels like there’s a charge on everything now.”
Shoppers who were on the bring-your-own-bag bandwagon before the tax went into effect said it’s pushed them to be more diligent.
Sheila Swann, 57, of Logan Square, sometimes carried her own reusable bags before the tax went into effect, “but it’s about 90 percent of the time now,” she said while shopping at a Near North Trader Joe’s Friday morning. Swann didn’t have a bag with her that day, but said it was a rare, spur-of-the-moment stop.
“If it helps to save the environment, I’m good with it,” she said.
The tax replaced a ban on lightweight plastic bags, which city officials said wasn’t as effective as they’d hoped at curbing usage. In response to the ban on lightweight bags, some retailers simply switched to thicker ones.
Tax collection data alone, because of the way it is collected and the variation in when retailers made their first payments, makes it difficult to tell how consumers responded immediately after the disposable bag tax was introduced.
But the amount the city has collected so far — nearly $3 million as of July 25 — is on pace to come in well below the $9.2 million the tax was expected to generate for city coffers this year. The city had also estimated retailers would garner $3.7 million from their portion of the tax, bringing the total collected to $12.9 million.
Any shortfall would be a tiny slice of the overall city budget, said city spokeswoman Mary Kay Accurso.
The lower-than-expected tax collections fit with research commissioned by the city pointing to early signs that shoppers did dial back on their use of bags provided at store checkout counters when the tax went into effect.
Slightly less than half the customers at large grocery stores included in the study used disposable bags issued during the checkout process in the month after the tax was implemented, down about 33 percent from the prior month, city officials said in an April news release.
Post-bag tax, shoppers used one store-issued disposable bag per trip on average, down from 2.3 bags during the month prior to the tax, according to the report from Chicago behavioral design lab ideas42 and researchers at New York University and the University of Chicago Energy & Environment Lab.
“We continue to be pleased with the environmental impact of this initiative,” said Doug Palmer, senior associate at ideas42.
What’s less clear is whether the early reduction will last as customers adjust to seeing the extra tax on their receipts and weigh the convenience of taking a bag against the 7-cent tax.
Many Jewel-Osco customers have remembered to bring their own reusable bags, but the grocery chain has recently seen an uptick in the number of bags purchased, said spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco.
Walgreens doesn’t have specific data on bag use, but customers do seem to be using fewer disposable bags, opting for reusable bags or skipping bags altogether if they can carry purchases without them, said spokesman James Graham.
Palmer said ideas42 is planning a follow-up study looking at a full year’s worth of data to assess the tax’s longer-term effect, but pointed to research studying receipts at Washington, D.C., grocery stores that failed to find evidence disposable bag use crept back up in the 2½ years after that city introduced a similar tax.