Seattle Bans Plastic Bags, and Sets a Charge for Paper
SEATTLE — The City Council here voted unanimously on Monday to ban plastic grocery bags and charge a 5-cent fee on paper bags — and this time city leaders hope the ban actually takes effect.
Three years ago, Seattle city officials became the first in the nation to approve a fee on paper and plastic bags, instituting a charge of 20 cents for each bag provided by many retail stores. The idea was to create a financial incentive to reduce pollution: the fee was supposed to prompt people to bring reusable bags with them to shop.
But before the 2008 fee took effect, the plastic-bag industry led a petition drive that forced the issue onto a citywide ballot. In August 2009, in the midst of the recession and after the industry spent $1.4 million on the campaign, Seattle voters rejected the fee.
“Twenty cents felt kind of punitive, especially for low-income folks,” said Mike O’Brien, a council member whose committee introduced the current bill.
Instead of becoming a leader on the issue, Seattle watched as other cities moved forward with bans and fees.
“There’s a competitive side to seeing who can come up with the most progressive legislation,” said Mr. O’Brien, who was a local Sierra Club leader, and a candidate for the Council, when the bag fee was on the ballot.
Now Seattle is the fourth city in the state to approve a ban, modeling its measure closely on one approved this year in Bellingham. Some larger cities, including San Francisco, Washington and Portland, Ore., have also instituted bans and fees. But plenty of places are still wrestling with the subject. In Los Angeles, the City Council has studied the issue for four years.
Arguments persist about the environmental drawbacks and benefits of each type of bag. Mr. O’Brien said one reason the Council was allowing paper bags was because the city has one of the highest rates in the nation for paper bag recycling, about 85 percent, while it recycles only about 13 percent of the 292 million plastic bags distributed in the city. Under the ban, plastic bags could still be provided for produce and bulk grocery items.
Many of the area’s largest grocers and retailers support the new measure. But it is opposed by the plastic bag industry. An industry spokesman said Monday that it had not decided whether it would try to put the measure before voters yet again.
Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly, a plastics maker and recycler, said bans were “badly misguided efforts.”
He added, “Moving consumers away from plastic bags only pushes people to less environmentally friendly options such as paper bags, which require more energy to produce and transport, and reusable bags, which are not recyclable.”