Plaid Skirts, Plastic Bags and Unintended Consequences

Evanston’s city government apparently emerged from the long winter ready to meddle. First, they denied a liquor license to a proposed Tilted Kilt downtown, citing the chain’s lack of conformity to “community standards.” I’m not sure what they mean by this – surely it’s not because it’s a national chain (there is, after all, a Chili’s nearby) or because it’s of the noisy beer and sports persuasion (there’s a Buffalo Wild Wings steps from the Chili’s). According to a petition of indignant residents

“We believe a Tilted Kilt would endanger Evanston’s girl children, miseducate our boys and girls, disrespect Evanston’s women and our Fountain Square war memorial, insult many of our men, diminish the safety and appeal of our downtown and undermine the laws against sex discrimination and sexual harassment,”

Wow. Of course, that’s hyperbolic, especially considering that the restaurant itself would be unable to grab the boys and “girl children” off the street and force them inside – parents would need to bring them there. If the suggestion is that it doesn’t even matter if patrons don’t go there and that The Tilted Kilt is detrimental to the community simply for existing, you would think there would be more collective community outrage at the Northwestern sex class that recently featured a live sex act in the classroom. To the extent of my knowledge, the city stayed mum on that – but NU eventually caved and canceled the course.

If there’s no demand for this type of restaurant in Evanston, then it would flounder and close. But we won’t find that out, and the proposed site will remain glaringly vacant. One last item from the piece linked above:

“Downtown merchants need foot traffic to be successful, and we need help from the city in attracting new retail businesses to the downtown area,” said Katherine Pappas, a downtown Evanston merchant.

“People walking in downtown Evanston, exploring our shops, is critical to the success of small businesses,” Pappas said. “Within two blocks of the location we’ve discussed, over 25 vacant retail spaces is what I counted this afternoon. Vacant places create a vacant life.”

Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Fine said that opening a Tilted Kilt in Evanston would not necessarily equate to improved business for its neighbors.

“It strikes me as a restaurant that would do very well in certain kinds of places that are oriented toward leisure and a sports bar and a male customer base,” Fine said. “It would strike me that Evanston wouldn’t be the ideal location for a Tilted Kilt.”

I can only laugh at the two sides of the debate being represented by a business owner with actual skin in the game (no pun intended) when it comes to driving more traffic towards the downtown area….and a sociology professor attempting to make an economic argument (and a false one – a college town that can support said Buffalo Wild Wings can’t support another sports bar?)

But not just content to determine what restaurants are worthy, Evanston also has a bee in its bonnet about plastic shopping bags. We should really walk through this story piece by piece, as it offers such a perfect example of government overreach being born.

Evanston officials are considering a ban on disposable shopping bags. Officials said that if it passes, the city would be the first community in Illinois to outlaw the pervasive bags — joining just a few other places in the nation.

“We need to do something about these bags,” said Ald. Coleen Burrus, 9th, who brought the ordinance before the city’s Administration and Public Works Committee Monday night.

There it is – “We need to do something.” The seed is planted with the unspecific urgency that public officials have perfected. We’ve gotta do something. What, exactly, we don’t know, but we were elected to do things, and we can’t just do nothing, so somebody, come up with something. (Spoiler alert: “Something” is usually a tax or a ban.)

Burrus initially directed staff to prepare a draft ordinance that would levy a 5-cent tax on each disposable shopping bag given to customers in Evanston stores. A similar ordinance, passed last year in the nation’s capitol, netted $150,000 in the first month of existence, according to the Washington Post. Evanston officials had hoped the bag tax could be deposited into the Ecology Center Fund, with at least half of the revenue generated from the tax going toward “education and outreach related to disposable carryout bags.”

However, Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th, said that she would prefer an outright ban on disposable carryout bags instead.

“I hate plastic bags and I’m prepared to vote tonight to eliminate plastic bags or brown paper bags – whatever it takes to get rid of them,” Rainey said. “I oppose the charge of a tax because to me that simply permits you to have plastic bags if you pay for them.”

“I understand why you added the 5 cents, but it’s regressive,” she added. “The very people it’s going to hit are going to be the people who it’s going to hurt.”

Ooooh! A tax and a ban on the table. Like Schwartz from A Christmas Story, we’re skipping the middling steps and going right for the throat! And check out Ann Rainey, raising the stakes – she doesn’t even want to let you choose to pay an additional tax on plastic bags. Whatever it takes, Ann! And can we read that last sentence again? “The very people it’s going to hit are going to be the people who it’s going to hurt.” What? Aren’t the ones getting hit and the ones getting hurt usually the same? Moving on.

Michael Drennan, a member of the board of directors of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, estimated that Evanston shoppers use about 25 million plastic bags each year.

“These bags don’t go away,” Drennan said. “They don’t stick around in Evanston either. They actually go to Lake County. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s running out of landfill space. And it’s running out of landfill space to entertain the irresponsible actions of Evanston shoppers.”

Evanston resident Nancy Bruski urged aldermen to consider the “devastating environmental destruction” caused by disposable shopping bags.

YOU IRRESPONSIBLE SHOPPERS ARE CAUSING DEVASTATING ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION. Well. I have to admit, this does certainly warrant doing something. Having covered city council meetings before (some in the People’s Republic of Urbana, no less), I can almost hear the echo chamber building to fever pitch – we’ve now escalated from “We’ve gotta do something” to “You sinners need to repent through sacrifice at the altar of Gaia.”

I’m an Evanston resident. Over the course of nearly three years I’ve had the chance to walk and drive all over the city and have never once found plastic bags to be more pervasive or problematic than they are in any other community I’ve been in. In fact, I’ve never even noticed them at all. Now, it’s true – maybe I don’t know “devastating environmental destruction” when I see it, being the irresponsible and reckless shopper/resident that I am. But if you forced me, at gunpoint, to name the primary source of litter I come across in our fair city, I’d say newsprint – in the form of newspapers or circulars – or fast food bags/containers.

This begs the question – are plastic bags uniquely guilty when it comes to litter? No; the traits that are getting them singled out – they’re prevalent, they can get caught up in the wind – are not limited to plastic bags. And the fact that I don’t see a glut of plastic bags in the areas I frequent tells me that people are not, by nature, more likely to be careless with plastic bags. So, in areas where plastic bags are being tossed around all willy-nilly, it’s entirely possible that if the plastic bags were removed, something else would take its place – perhaps not up in trees, but in the street and in yards. 

Here’s the thing, though. Although Michael Drennan thinks I’m irresponsible, I actually reuse literally every plastic shopping bag I get, whether it’s for cat litter or for lining small trash cans. And this is not some wildly innovative move on my part – lots of people do this. Moreover, I would continue to do this, even if all bags were banned – meaning I would be bringing bags back into the community (where they wouldn’t be litter, but would go to a landfill),

However, Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st, said that any tax on disposable shopping bags could have a “devastating impact” on small businesses in the city.

She’s right. I would absolutely leave the city limits and shop somewhere else. There are several places to buy groceries and other goods in surrounding communities – why would I go to the ones going out of their way to make shopping (and litter box cleaning, for that matter) more difficult for me? I just hope the vague notion of environmental good the reduction of plastic bags accomplishes isn’t outweighed by the fumes my car emits regularly driving through Evanston and into Chicago or Skokie or Niles to do my shopping.

For a city that likes to think of itself as a bastion of progressivism, these are pretty stark reminders that Evanston isn’t progressive at all. This is a city that was dry until 1972. 40 years later, they’re doing that paternalist – not progressive – tradition proud.

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One thought on “Plaid Skirts, Plastic Bags and Unintended Consequences

  1. Pingback: I Have a Distillery Around the Corner, And You Don’t | pro se

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