For decades, mom and pop grocery stores on Chicago’s South and West Sides have stayed in business with the help of longtime, loyal customers, many of whom have low incomes and live in food deserts. As part of this relationship, many mom and pop store owners have become respected members of the community who occasionally allow struggling customers to purchase goods on credit when times are tough.
But a new plastic bag checkout tax that will go into effect Jan. 1 will place many longtime mom and pop store owners in an uncomfortable position of charging their customers 7 cents for every plastic bag used. It’s a thorny issue for business owners and customers, who over decades forged a friendly business relationship that often goes beyond the bottom line.
The move is not a choice for mom and pop store owners, who will be among hundreds of retailers that will operate under the new checkout tax ordinance the city passed Nov. 16. City leaders hope the bag tax will discourage shoppers from using plastic bags, which critics say hurt the environment as they remain intact for decades.
Similar laws were passed in Los Angeles and San Francisco. New York and Minneapolis will have a similar tax next year. In Washington, D.C., a bag tax cut disposable bag use in half two months after the city passed the ordinance.
Environmental activists hope the bag tax will achieve similar results in Chicago, where an estimated 900 million disposal bags were used before August 2015.
On average, Americans use more than 100 billion disposable bags each year.
Economically, the bag tax in Chicago is expected to generate $12.9 million in revenue next year. Some residents believe the tax is another way that Chicago is trying to “nickel and dime” its consumers.
While the ordinance applies to Chicago’ vast market of retailers, supermarkets and pharmacies, the impact will mostly be felt by customers at mom and pop stores, traditionally the bedrock of the business community in low-income neighborhoods.
The new ordinance will replace one that was passed in 2015. Under that one, many supermarkets and retail stores skirted the law by offering customers thicker plastic bags at no charge. Walgreens will resume using thinner bags as they receive 2 cents for every plastic bag that is charged to the customer. The city will get 5 cents from the transaction, which will appear on the customer’s receipt.
The tax does not apply to restaurants and families who purchase grocery items with food stamps.
But while shoppers at big retailers like Jewel and Walgreens could still use traditional paper bags or store-bought shopping bags that can be used over and over, customers at mom and pop stores are stuck with plastic bags.
With Cook County’s sugary drink tax, cigarette taxes, and the highest sales tax in the nation among major cities, some residents in Bronzeville are growing weary with this latest tax by Chicago officials.
“This is ridiculous,” said Clifford Streeter, who was shopping at a mom and pop store in Bronzeville on a Friday afternoon. “I think the city is trying to help themselves.”
Another shopper, Timothy Owens, said the bag tax is a bad idea.
“I don’t think they should be charging tax for this,” he said. “I don’t feel that’s right. They were really hurting us already with all of these other taxes and now plastic bags.”