Earlier this month Seattle mayor Greg Nickels proposed slapping a 20-cent tax on disposable plastic shopping bags as a way to encourage retailers and shoppers to switch to reusable alternatives. Meanwhile, Chicago’s approach to plastic bag problems is alternately being characterized as a great first step and a missed opportunity.

Governments around the world have been working to reduce litter, cleanup costs, resource waste, and ecosystem damage caused by plastic bags, in most cases by implementing bans or heavy taxes on them. In Chicago, 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino has convened meetings with environmental advocates and business leaders to try to come up with a city ordinance mandating that they be recycled.

After being rewritten recently, Laurino’s ordinance would now require that most of the city’s grocery stores and pharmacies set up plastic bag recycling programs and sell reusable bags that would be prominently displayed near checkout lines. Smaller stores would be given extra time to comply. This represents some expansion of the mandate she originally proposed with 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, which only applied to stores with at least 5,000 square feet.

But it would exempt retailers that don’t make at least a quarter of their sales on food or pharmaceuticals–including Home Depot, Best Buy, Menard’s, and other big-box stores. 

“That’s the tradeoff,” says Brian Granahan of Environment Illinois. “This is at best a modest first step, but Alderman Laurino was clear about saying several times that she sees it that way–as a first step. This may fit into the bigger picture with how the city’s dealing with recycling“–that is, go really, really, really slowly.

“I look at this as us taking it in steps because I thought it was important for the retail lobby and the environmental lobby to be part of the process,” Laurino says.

Retailers were initially opposed to any plastic bag mandates, including an ordinance requiring them to recycle, but now they appear to understand they’re going to have to do something. If this passes–and Laurino thinks she has the support in the city council–she says she will be open to “expanding it” in the future.

Granahan and other environmentalists favor the kind of tax Seattle’s discussing, since that approach has been successful in Ireland and other places. Recycling, they argue, is better than nothing, but far more energy (and petroleum) would be saved if people had more motivation to switch to reusable cloth bags.

Laurino says she, Burke, environmentalists, and retailers have debated the viability of a ban as well as a recycling mandate, but “the Seattle model really didn’t come up in our conversations.”

“I’m frustrated–this is only going to go so far,” says Mike Nowak, vice president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. “I understand that legislation is about compromise, but every day with this we’re compromising the environment.”

The proposed ordinance will probably come before the City Council’s energy and environment committee in early May, Laurino says. Assuming it passes, it would then go before the full council on May 14.