City Hall

Plastic Bag Ban Has Seven Council Sponsors

By Erica C. Barnett November 21, 2011

City council members, joined by several small local grocers and representatives of environmental groups at the Seattle Aquarium this afternoon, rolled out the details of a proposal to ban plastic bags and allow grocers and other retail businesses to charge customers a five-cent fee for single-use paper bags, which are now free.

Plastic bags, to a much greater extent than paper, clog landfills, kill wildlife, destroy marine habitat, and break down into smaller bits that pollute the ocean and never decompose. "Anything that we use for a couple of minutes should not stick around for thousands of years," legislation sponsor Mike O'Brien said. His colleague Sally Bagshaw, who took a year-long trip on a 39-foot sailboat across the Pacific Ocean, recalled her horror upon seeing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of plastic and other debris that stretches across a 2,000-mile stretch of the Pacific.

Pulling reusable bag after bag out of a larger cloth sack, Russian doll-style, until she was holding a foot-high mound of bags from PCC, TJ Maxx, AT&T, and other retailers, Bagshaw said there's really no excuse anymore not to use reusable bags. "These are just a fraction of the bags that have been given to me over the last two years," she said, foisting the towering pile onto council president Richard Conlin.

"The nickel [fee on paper bags] works for the environment by providing a modest monetary reminder for all of us to bring a reusable bag with us," O'Brien said. "The nickel fee works for business, because this is not a city tax---the nickel fee will stay with businesses. It also works for low-income families, because families on [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] or food assistance will be exempted form paying that nickel fee." The city will distribute reusable bags to residents "at low cost or free of charge," the legislation says.

O'Brien tells PubliCola the aim of the proposed law is to get people to use reusable bags, not to switch from plastic to paper, which has its own environmental problems. "Trying to ask, 'Which one's worse? Paper or plastic?' That's not something you can objectively measure," O'Brien says. "They're both bad. But banning both would require that everyone use reusable bags all the time, which is where we want to get to, but I'm not sure we want to go mandating that right away. ... There needs to be some option for people when they show up and they forgot to bring their bags or they bought more than they expected."

The legislation, modeled on a similar law in Bellingham, comes three years after a proposal to charge a 20-cent fee on both paper and plastic grocery bags failed at the polls, thanks to a $1.4 million campaign against the measure by the American Chemistry Council, which argued that the fee would harm small businesses, hurt low-income consumers, and create an unnecessary new government bureaucracy. They also argued that it was unfair to target the fee only at groceries, while other stores that use plastic bags, like department stores, were exempt from the fee. The new proposal would apply to all retail stores.

Whether you agree with those arguments or not (PubliCola, which used to do endorsements, did not), the bag fee failed overwhelmingly in 2009. It was sponsored by council president Richard Conlin.

"We heard from voters that it was too complicated ... and that it had not been well-thought out enough in terms of the impact on low-income people in the city," council member Sally Clark said. "Both of those things have been really well addressed."

O'Brien tells PubliCola that the chemical industry has not objected to similar laws in Portland and Bellingham, nor has it registered any opposition to the latest Seattle proposal. O'Brien has received a letter from the vice president of the Hilex Poly Company, the largest producer of plastic bags in the US, suggesting that instead of banning plastic bags, the city should work toward a "comprehensive statewide plastics recycling" program. (Even in the rare places where it is available, plastic "recycling," as we've noted, is more accurately described as "downcycling"---melting bags down and turning them into less durable new plastic products, a cycle that can only go on for so long before the plastic product has to be discarded).

This time around, council members seem confident that an outright ban will prove more popular. Already, the ban has seven council sponsors, with only two council members---Tom Rasmussen and Bruce Harrell---not yet formally on board.

Stores that violate the ban will face a fine of up to $500---the same fine levied against stores and restaurants that violate a ban on Styrofoam food containers passed in 2008. We have a call out to Seattle Public Utilities to find out how frequently the foam ban has been enforced.
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