It’s been almost a month since the Oak Park Board of Trustees approved an ordinance creating a voluntary program for large retailers to charge a 10-cent fee for plastic bags in an effort to reduce their use.
But Oak Parkers turned out in numbers at the village’s May 15 board meeting with a message — make the fee mandatory, as in Evanston and Chicago.
The ordinance approved on April 17 gives retailers the option of imposing the bag fee, the proceeds of which would be split between the retailer and the village. The village would use part of the fee to market participating retailers as green businesses with the goal of getting large retailers to comply voluntarily.
That ordinance ran counter to a proposal recommended by the village’s citizen-led Energy and Environment Commission, which would have made the program mandatory for retailers that have stores larger than 5,000 square feet.
Jim Babcock, a member of the environmental justice team at First United Church in Oak Park and a member of the Interfaith Green Network, praised the village for its work on other initiatives, such as creation of a renewable energy fund and compost program.
But Babcock said he was disappointed by the plastic bag fee ordinances.
“We strongly object to the board’s decision to make the retail plastic bag charge strictly voluntary,” he said. “We believe the voluntary nature of the ordinance makes it totally ineffective in reducing the large number of bags given out to Oak Park shoppers every year.”
An estimated 17 million plastic bags are distributed in Oak Park annually, Oak Park Environmental Services Manager Karen Rozmus told the board in April.
Babcock said the Interfaith Green Network, made up of members of various congregations in Oak Park, supports the Energy and Environment Commission’s proposal to make the program mandatory.
“Their plan, put together after several years of research of other cities’ programs, plus extensive consultation with local residents and businesses, mirrors the current plan in every respect except their plan is a mandatory one,” Babcock said. “And that makes all the difference in effectiveness.”
He also asked that a portion of the village’s take should be used to support access to reusable bags for low-income residents.
“Costs for a clean and healthy environment should not be regressive,” he said.
Judy Klem, Oak Park Temple green team member and a member of the Interfaith Green Network, said making the program voluntary is “the same as if a teacher said to her students, ‘OK, kids, homework is voluntary this year.’
“Speaking from experience, I don’t think the homework would get done.”
Klem said that some businesses, such as the Sugar Beet Food Co-op, are already are taking the lead on the plastic bag issue.
“Imagine the impact of a store the size of Pete’s or Jewel or CVS could have if they were to comply with the mandated ordinance on plastic bags,” Klem said. “And these are businesses that are already successfully complying [with plastic bag ordinances] in Chicago and Evanston.”
Rev. Teran Loeppke, pastor of congregational and community development at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, also spoke out in favor of a strengthened plastic bag ordinance.
Loeppke said that passing an ordinance “with no teeth” is a mistake.
“I believe each and every one of you has it in you to go back to the retailers and tell them no, because you have God in you and God does miraculous things every day,” he said.
He said the current ordinance “positions Oak Park on the side of climate deniers, excuse makers and noisy talkers.”
“I say that out of the love and respect for the children in this room who are going to inherit our earth,” he said.