No need to sack reusable grocery bags — just make them stay at home for a while, too

Shoppers line up to get into the the Trader Joe’s in Evanston earlier this month. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

Local 881 President Steve Powell says he’s not seeking a repeal of the bag tax, just a temporary suspension based on concerns expressed by store clerks and baggers. “They’re scared, and they’re nervous — and rightfully so,” Powell said. 

The union that represents Chicago grocery and pharmacy workers wants the city to suspend its plastic bag tax during the coronavirus crisis and temporarily eliminate the use of reusable bags.

But the request was promptly shot down by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, citing a lack of evidence that reusable bags transmit the illness.

Zack Koutsky, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, says that switching back to plastic bags would help reduce one point of stress for checkout workers worried about being infected with the virus while handling customers’ bags brought from home.

“They believe this is an easy fix that would give them peace of mind,” Koutsky said. Local 881 represents 34,000 retail, pharmacy and grocery store workers in Illinois and northwest Indiana.

Environmental groups have been pushing back against similar efforts around the country to relax plastic bag restrictions, arguing the plastics industry is just using the crisis as an excuse to advance its own long-held agenda: repeal of state laws and city ordinances that discourage or outlaw plastic bag use.

A statement from the mayor’s office echoed the environmentalist concerns.

“The City continues to explore all options to ensure the health and safety of Chicago’s essential workers, especially our grocery store employees. However, without sufficient evidence-based data that reusable bags are a transmitter of COVID-19, we are not currently considering a ban on reusable bags. To do so will have a significant harmful impact on our environment, and will severely undermine years of work to change the behavior of the public and stores around the use of plastic bags,” the statement said.

Local 881 President Steve Powell says he’s not seeking a repeal of the bag tax, just a temporary suspension while the state and city are in emergency mode.

“I’m not working with the chemical companies. That’s not my issue,” he said.

Powell said his effort is based on concerns expressed by store clerks and baggers to their union representatives.

“They’re scared, and they’re nervous — and rightfully so,” Powell said.

Cashier George Wallace, center, works behind a plastic shield as a shopper, right, places groceries in a cart Thursday at a grocery store in Quincy, Mass.. Grocery stores across the U.S. are installing protective plastic shields at checkouts to help keep cashiers and shoppers from infecting each other with the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) ORG XMIT: MASR104
Cashier George Wallace, center, works behind a plastic shield as a shopper, right, places groceries in a cart Thursday at a grocery store in Quincy, Mass.

Koutsky said checkout workers may handle hundreds of customer bags brought from outside over the course of a work shift, and right now, they’re not happy about it.

Mariano’s suburban stores already have posted signs informing customers they are not allowed to use their own reusable bags for now and asking such bags not even be brought into the store.

Target has implemented a nationwide policy that customers wanting to use reusable bags must bag their own items.

Three states have already taken steps to temporarily relax their plastic bag restrictions during the crisis, Koutsky said.

I think we all know from personal experience that the bags we lug back and forth from the store aren’t kept in immaculate condition. That doesn’t necessarily make them virus carriers, but it’s hard to be dismissive of such concerns right now when the vast majority of us have no idea whether we are infected.

 AP Photos
Shoppers wait to enter at a Target store in Glenview on Wednesday.

Grocery stores are fairly unpleasant places at the moment with everybody a little tense as shoppers try —often in vain — to find the items they want while avoiding their fellow customers in the aisles and at the checkout lanes.

You can see it in the faces of the workers, too.

“There is definitely just an overall tenseness every time I go to work,” one 24-year-old cashier told me Friday.

These workers don’t have the luxury of phoning it in from home.

While most of them are happy to still be collecting a paycheck and probably extra hours at that, they aren’t necessarily happy about having no choice about interfacing with the public or, in many cases, little to nothing in the way of personal protection.

I support the bag tax. It has served its purpose and should continue to do so.

Reusable bags have definitely prevented the Brown family from unnecessarily sending too much plastic off to the landfill — or to blow around to places it was never intended.

The union also wants its members designated as first responders to make them eligible for free childcare and personal protective equipment, among other things.

And they’d like to place limits on how many customers are allowed in a store at one time.

For today, I’ll leave those additional matters to the continued talks between the mayor’s office and the union.

Temporarily returning to plastic bags, on the other hand, seems like a reasonable request and a simple enough way to show those harried grocery workers we appreciate their concerns.

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