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In observance of the Memorial Day holiday, the Daily Chronicle newspaper will not be published May 27. Breaking news and information will be updated on
Local Column

Olson: Illinois needs a plastic-bag tax

At the bottom of the pantry at Casa de Olson, beneath the pots and pans, the fondue pot we use at Christmastime and the Panini grill we never do, lies an ever-growing pile of plastic grocery bags.

As I imagine most people do, we wad up the bags we get after a shopping trip and shove them into one bag. Then we shove the bag full of bags into the pantry. Every so often, my wife, who stays on top of these things, will deposit armfuls of bagged-up bags into a bag recycling can outside a grocery store.

They use them to make ... more plastic bags.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed a 5-cent tax on all bags handed out at checkout aisles and kiosks around the state. It’s a not a novel idea – several cities impose a bag tax, and Hawaii bans them altogether – but it’s a good one.

Tax every doggone one of these bags. Tax them until they go away, or at least until consumers start using them mindfully.

Our use of disposable plastics in general is becoming unsustainable, and plastic bags are toxic trash.

Americans use about 30 billion plastic
grocery bags
a year, each for an average of
12 minutes. Most of them aren’t recycled. Many of them pollute our oceans, lakes and waterways, and kill wildlife there.

Just imagine how many bags are buried in the ever-expanding landfill south of Cortland, where they’ll remain intact for hundreds of years. Don’t put them in with the curbside recycling, either – they’ll clog the sorting machines.

Despite the burden these bags place on our environment, they’re so cheap to make that most consumers pay nothing for them. If you walk into a local grocery store and ask a checker for a fistful of plastic bags, they probably wouldn’t care. You can take as many as you want from the self-checkout lines.

Take ’em home and toss ’em right into the trash if you want. It’s free!

Insane is what it is. There is a cost to putting billions of plastic bags into the waste stream every year, and apparently it’s up to government to make that cost real for people.

Adding a surcharge for the bags probably is the only way to change people’s behavior.

If plastic becomes more expensive, maybe more people will bring reusable bags when they shop. Maybe they’ll start asking us “paper or plastic?” in the checkout aisle again.

There will be many people who won’t want to pay the state another nickel, and so much the better.

In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire told Benjamin Braddock, “there’s a great future in plastics.”

It was a prophetic line. But there were only about 200 million Americans in 1967. Today, there’s almost 330 million of us. We need to make our over-reliance on single-use plastic containers and packaging a thing of the past.

A plastic-bag tax is a good start. Give people time to adjust their behavior, with a goal of phasing out single-use plastic bags altogether in the future.

As for the money raised, it would be ideal to see it used for a state open lands grant program, maintenance or improvements to state parks or other environmental preservation or cleanup efforts in our communities.

Unfortunately, it seems any new taxes Illinois collects likely are to be gobbled up by the state’s pension obligations.

Regardless, ending this plastic-bag madness is a worthwhile goal, and a surcharge is a good start. People will change. There will be fewer plastic bags in our landfills and waterways. 

We’ll find something else to put at the bottom of our pantries and under our sinks, too.

• Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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