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Seattle City Council Proposes Ban On Disposable Plastic Bags

Deborah Wang

Seattle's elected leaders want you to stop using disposable plastic bags. Yesterday, Seattle City councilmembers introduced a bill that would ban single–use plastic bags from retail outlets in the city.

At the same time, the law would impose a fee on paper bags in order to encourage people to use reusable bags instead. The bill is modeled after a Bellingham ordinance that goes into effect next year. KUOW's Deborah Wang reports.


The ordinance would ban what are called "check–out plastic bags" from every retail outlet in the city. That would include grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, big box retailers, even farmers markets.

There would be some exceptions. You'd still be able to use plastic bags for meat and produce, and also for take–out food. And dry cleaning and newspaper bags would be excluded.

The bill makes it harder to just switch from plastic to paper, though. It imposes a 5 cent per bag fee on paper bags. That fee would be waived for people on food stamps.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien unveiled the legislation at the Seattle Aquarium. He says it's aimed at keeping plastics out of the waters of Puget Sound.

O'Brien: "Anything that we use for only a couple of minutes should not stick around for hundreds of years. We need to move to protect the Puget Sound, and protect the marine life and habitat that rely on that waters before we do irreparable damage for generations to come."

And if you feel like you've heard this story before, you have. Sort of.

Three years ago, Seattle City councilmembers took their first pass at the disposable bag issue. They voted to charge consumers 20 cents for every plastic and paper bag they used.

That law was shortlived. The following year, it was challenged in a referendum which was sponsored largely by the plastics industry. And voters overturned it.

Since then, though, a number of cities — including Portland, Los Angeles, Edmonds and Bellingham — have taken a different approach, and have voted to ban plastic bags altogether.

That approach doesn't sit well with the plastics industry. Mark Daniels is in charge of environmental policy for Hilex Poly, the largest plastic bag manufacturer in the country.

Daniels: "You know, it does real harm to real people. You know, it's going to increase the cost of groceries in Seattle, it's going to decimate a uniquely American–based industry, it's going to add greenhouse gases with the use of paper bags."

What's not clear is whether the plastics industry will challenge this plastic bag ordinance. Daniels will only say that his company would rather spend its energy growing its recycling business.

Manufacturers of paper bags are unhappy about it as well. Patrick Rita works for the Renewable Bag Council.

Rita: "Including the paper bag in these proposals is not appropriate. It's inappropriate, and the reason why is we feel our product is not part of the problem that these measures are trying to solve."

And there may be some push back from residents as well. At this supermarket in the University District, most of the customers are carrying their groceries in plastic bags.

Alex Nelson: "Um, bread, milk, eggs, waffles."

Alex Nelson is a student at the UW. She says she uses the bags to line her garbage cans at home, so she says a ban on plastic bags would cost her money. But she says she would still support it.

Nelson: "Honestly, it would be inconvenient for me, but I would vote to ban them because in the end we do have to stop polluting and we can't fill up our landfills. There is really no where to put that garbage, so I think I would vote to ban plastic bags."

Public hearings on the proposed plastic bag ban begin this week at City Hall.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

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