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7 Cents From a Clean Getaway

An optimistic Chicagoan embraces the bag tax.

By Featured, News

Image by Amber Huff.

When I moved to Chicago last summer, the first thing I did was visit a local grocery store around the corner from my apartment. I filled my cart with the essentials, and once I reached the checkout, the teller politely inquired about the number of bags I would need for my purchases. I was perplexed. Wouldn’t she know how many I needed after she bagged them? She must have noticed my confusion, because she quickly smiled and said I must be new to the neighborhood. This grocery store had always charged extra for bags.

Despite the unexpectedness, I was delighted. At last, an American store that is doing what the rest of the world has been doing for ages: helping our dear Mother Earth. However, as the weeks passed by I found my regular grocery store (Trader Joe’s), and soon forgot about the tax — going along using paper bags without a second thought. As we all know, that absentmindedness came to a halt on February 1, when the bag tax became effective for the entire city. To be fair, Trader Joe’s did provide ample warning; signs were pasted all over the store. But I must have been too distracted by the 99-cent greeting cards to notice.

The tax is instrumented by merchants getting charged for the bags they purchase. Then, customers who need bags “reimburse” them, with a seven-cent charge added to their purchase. Chicago’s city council voted for the tax with the mission of not only helping the environment, but also for another key reason: The revenue generated from the tax gives the city an extra five cents while stores get to keep the remaining two. Consumers should not overlook this fact when considering its function (or sincerity) as a public service.

Still, if customers choose to embrace the tax and bring their own reusable bags, it will be helpful for all parties involved. No big deal, right? This is the Earth we are talking about. If bringing a reusable bag to shop will help, than we should do that.

Needless to say, adjusting may not come smoothly to some. Despite my best intentions, I’ve found myself sans bag in the line at Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, a CVS, and Jewel-Osco — forced to make do with what I have. Luckily, most stores offer their own brand of reusable bags that you can score for as cheap as 99 cents. I have a wine tote and a larger bag for bulkier items, and they cost me a total of $1.75.

Paper and plastic bags you’ve got lying around at home also make excellent substitutes. Save a couple that will survive a few trips to the store, and then recycle the rest instead of adding to the pile with taxed bags.

For the days when I’ve forgotten my own bags because of a spontaneous trip, I’ve found most items can fit into my backpack if I strategically arrange them. You can balance out the weight by putting glass items, like tomato sauce and wine bottles, on either side while placing produce and canned goods in the middle. I’ve noticed that I’ve bought a lot fewer unnecessary items with this limited bag space, and sometimes when I realize I forgot a bag, I decide that a trip to the store really wasn’t as pivotal as I thought it was. I’ve saved significant money this way —  a great and unexpected outcome of the new tax.

Despite the annoyances of adjusting, the bag tax is a great first step towards reducing our carbon footprint and prolonging the life of the planet. So bring your totes, bags, backpacks, purses, wagons, burlap sacks, suitcases — whatever — and revel in the fact that you’re making the world a better place with every shopping trip you take.

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