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Debate Over Plastic Bags Heats Up In Seattle

by Martin Kaste

August 10, 2009

The plastics industry is spending more than $1 million to fight a surcharge on grocery bags in Seattle.

In an effort to reduce plastic and paper waste, the City Council imposed the 20-cent-per-bag charge last year. But the American Chemistry Council helped fund a petition drive that forced the issue to a citywide ballot. That vote is coming up on Aug. 18, and the ACC has contributed approximately $1.4 million for an ad campaign against the surcharge.

Seattle is not the first city to try to discourage the use of plastic bags. San Francisco imposed a partial ban, and Palo Alto and the Seattle suburb of Edmonds have banned the bags outright. But Seattle is the biggest city in the U.S. that has tried to put this kind of fee on bags.

‘Great Garbage Patch’

The campaign against the plastic bags comes out of environmentalists’ concerns over “the great garbage patch,” a huge slick of microscopic bits of non-biodegradable plastic that is circulating in the Pacific Ocean.

Heather Trim, a volunteer with the Seattle Green Bag Campaign, carries a vial of cloudy seawater in her purse as a visual aid. Our plastics are accumulating out there,” Trim says.

An estimated 20 to 30 percent of Seattle shoppers bring reusable bags to the store — far higher than in most of the country — but environmentalists here want that number to grow. Trim says the surcharge, which she calls a “fee,” is the best way to do this.

Opponents call it a 20-cent “tax.”

“I carry recyclable bags in my car every day — always with me,” says Jane Petrich, outside a QFC grocery store near the University of Washington. “And 80 percent of the time I forget to take them in with me. But they’re in my car!”

If the bags cost 20 cents apiece, she says, she would remember to bring her own bags for sure. Nevertheless, she doesn’t like the idea. She says the “tax,” as she sees it, would fall hardest on poor shoppers.

That’s the message of the plastic-bag makers. Ads on local radio — paid for with money from the ACC — dramatize a husband and wife, lamenting the dawn of a new tax. “A tax on grocery bags is not what we need in this economy,” says the announcer.

Business groups have also criticized the proposed ordinance as poorly written, saying it would create a new city bureaucracy to oversee the bag surcharge.

Plastic bags represent only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the city’s garbage, they say, and many of those bags are actually being reused to hold the garbage itself. (Paper bags are also subject to the surcharge, but the paper industry has largely stayed out of the debate. The city ordinance includes paper bags primarily to make sure stores don’t just shift from plastic to paper to get around the surcharge.)

Steve Russell, the managing director of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division, calls the vote in Seattle “an important battle.”

“There are ways to achieve what we all agree is the goal of more recycled material that doesn’t punish people on fixed incomes or people less able to pay those kinds of fees,” he says.

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