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The Bag Tax Rebellion

There are risks in thinking small while trying to make a greener city.

Seattle made headlines earlier this year by imposing a fee on grocery bags. The move has all the hallmarks of a well-meaning local initiative, a way Seattleites can do their part to save the planet.

By imposing the fee (some call it a tax) of 20 cents per bag, the city expects people will use fewer disposable plastic or paper grocery bags. That will cut down on garbage headed for landfill and reduce the carbon emissions used to manufacture and ship the bags.

But if it's such a no-brainer, why are some of Seattle's green-conscious citizens rebelling? No sooner had the City Council passed the bag tax than a citizen's initiative circulated to repeal the tax and quickly gained 20,000 signatures, more than enough to put the fee to a public vote.

Opponents have decried imposing fees at the checkstand that may hurt people on food stamps. Some object to new taxes at a time when the city is already asking for increases to pay for basic services like water and garbage. Others have said that it's the old nanny state meddling yet again.

What was put forward as a relatively innocuous baby step toward sustainability had infuriated many people — and not just the chemical industry that backs the repeal. Whether taxing shopping bags is an idea whose time has come remains to be seen. But the mini-furor over it is indicative of a larger problem with environmental strategies.

We know now that we are all part of environmental problems — that billions of small decisions and actions can lead to major problems. The drip, drip, drip of oil from thousands of cars or the poop of a million kitty cats can add to the pollution of Puget Sound. Thus little changes in mass behavior can have big impacts.

A great example came up in the presidential campaign when President-elect Barack Obama pointed out that if every driver in America kept their car tires properly inflated, it would save roughly 1.25 billion gallons of gas — about what we would gain from the offshore drilling his opponent, Republican John McCain, had been touting.

The truth is, we know that small, incremental changes in behavior can make a huge difference if everyone goes along with them.

But mandating such changes can have negative consequences. One is bag-tax backlash. Hitting consumers with fees at the micro level has the tendency to irritate people. Bag taxes, toll roads, recycling fees: Are we going to monetize every aspect of our behavior? That's an extremely conservative idea; not liberalism run amuck but a kind of libertarianism that views every citizen's action as a financial transaction in a free-market world. That, in turn, can lead to an erosion of belief in the commonweal, the sense that we're all in this together.

On the other hand, despite everyone's professed best intentions, small changes rarely happen voluntarily. They require a carrot or a stick, sometimes both. Those who back the bag ban know that a voluntary system won't achieve its goals.

If we focus on small, easily adopted ideas such as taxing bags or banning bottled water at City Hall, we also run the risk of appearing to be obsessed with the trivial while Rome — or the planet — burns. At the same time we're fiddling over grocery sacks, a recent government study indicates the city has major problems with pollution along traffic corridors in the South End. Live near a highway (Interstate 5, Highway 99) and your cancer risks "skyrocket." Why isn't this environmental issue front and center?

You can, of course, tackle both. But annoying people with trivial crusades tends to make people more cynical when the focus should be on bigger stuff. Landfill is important, but cancer rates in poorer neighborhoods trump that. If the bag tax is in place, it will reduce the city's landfill by half a train load per year — roughly 50 rail cars of grocery-bag garbage. Sounds like a lot, yet the city fills 100 train cars per day with garbage, according to the city staffers I talked to. In other words, the battle against grocery bags, even if won, is a minor skirmish in war with much bigger battles to be fought.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

You are right Skip, except that it is not a "extremely conservative idea" or "liberalism run amuck" it's progressive policy Seattle style. Focus on grocery bags and the proximity of patrons to strippers, but ignore Gangs of thugs blowing up Belltown.

Cameron

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 12:17 p.m. Inappropriate

> why are some of Seattle's green-conscious citizens rebelling?

The campaign against the bag fee is far from a grassroot movement. Last I checked, the "American Chemistry Council of Arlington, Virginia" is not a group of green conscious Seattle citizens. But for $217,000 of paid signature gathering, it's good to know that they fooled you.

http://www2.seattle.gov/ethics/searchlist/lists.asp?elcycle=el09a&hidRetrieve;=VIEW_CONTRIBUTIONS&version2;=YES&cbCampaign208;=ON

ChrisB

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

ChrisB is the perfect example of a 'local' who ignores the fact that thousands of other LOCALS signed the petition, it is not out of staters who are against this stupidity - it is the working people of Seattle.

That a handful of locals are trying to substitute a "no arg" argument for the truths about this travesty is very revealing.

This city needs a new mayor and a new city council !

This city does not need another tax, especially a tax that reflects the arrogance of the current mayor and council.

Ignore the drug dealing in China town, the gangs along first and second avenue and the lack of affordable housing - that seems to be the recipe offered.

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

There are a few plastic bag rebels. So what? Is that really the big story here?

The majority just voted to tax themselves for more parks and for better mass transit. Chances are most of us support an end to our dependency on (foreign) plastic bags too. We almost always vote to tax ourselves more to protect the environment. That's remarkable.

The real question: why are our politicians so timid when the voters obviously aren't? Why not just ban products like plastic bags that are making the earth uninhabitable instead of taxing them? Provide free re-usable bags subsidized by corporate advertising. Come up with creative solutions.

Instead our politicians dance around these issues as if there's a debate about protecting the environment in Seattle. Then the press fans the flames of manufactured controversy on behalf of the annoyed few who believe they have a right to screw up the planet.

That's why we can't focus on the bigger, tougher to solve problems Knute. Timid politicians; articles like this; and the annoyed few.

coll

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

How much would it cost to send every home in Seattle a reusable shopping bag? How much would a local business pay to have its logo of support on that bag, even if another business had its logo on the same bag?

I think that cuts down on many of those bags, and gives a Seattle identity to re-using a bag. From there it is an us with the Seattle bag vs them not using the Seattle bag.
Stimulating the conditions that you want things to change to would be more effective.

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 4:16 p.m. Inappropriate


coll and ChrisB belong to a minority that think they can simply impose their will on the majority.

annoyed few ? let see, how many PEOPLE LIVING IN SEATTLE signed the petitions ?

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 5:22 p.m. Inappropriate

We'll see if I am in the minority when this comes to a vote. But signatures alone do not signify anything... Tim Eyman is a good illustration of that. Especially when paid signature gatherers are used, at a substantial premium in cost per signature over other ballot measures.

ChrisB

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 5:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Steptoe forgets that the mayor and the city council were elected by the very same majority he claims to defend in an earlier post. Granted, representative democracy provides only indirect evidence of the people's will, but I, for one, voted for the current council and mayor because they WOULD promote greening of Seattle, even in the small incremental ways suggested by the bag fee. We do have a fundamental right to a safe environment; we do not have a right to pollute in the name of convenience. More importantly, pollution of all kinds disproportionately affects the poor more than anyone else (the rich and the middle class don't live by the freeways). The short term "savings" of 20 cents/bag ends up costing the poor in the long term much more in taxes for waste disposal and the medical costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Besides, it's just plain dumb not to use reusable bags.

bkochis

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I re-use those plastic bags. If they get taxed I will buy plastic bags at a cheaper rate. If I am forced by penalty of law, by tax, to end up picking up after my dog with a paper bag then do not by shocked when it ends up smoldering on the city's doorstep.

This is a politically covered tax they can collect, and not much more. They exempt so many other sources of plastic waste that it isn't even funny. But, they have found another way to tax people, citizens, at a retail point. Nickels dimes us to death.

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Nov 15, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate


you seattle 'greenies' are so much fun/funny. you leap to the defense of your fundamental rights ( a "safe" enviro, just what the hell is that ? )- who did you get these 'rights' from - can you publish a link to the document. recycling plastic is not polluting - i understand that seattle public schools never taught you that fact.

will the next asteroid plunging into the planets atmosphere 'respect these rights' ? are you going to put the planet on forced sterilization to stop human pollution from destroying these 'rights' ? i can just see it, the 5000 seattle greenies rushing down to mt st helens to protest the next time it belches gasses and ash.

if the mayor/council you voted for would have done the right thing, ban plastic bags, and NOTHING more - i believe there would be little if any objections.

bkochis, you never will get it, i do not live irresponsibly, i had a sense for conservation long before you could spell the word, and i do object when 'greenies' start dictating my life style.

ChrisB - YES, we will see ...

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 7:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute overlooks the incredible 'viral' benefits of these so-called small ideas. Once the city proposed the fee - bingo, what happens? You see a big uptake in people all over - and outside - the city using their own bags for shopping. The proposal and the press surrounding it has had a significant positive impact already. And don't forget, it's not just about bags filling up landfills - those bags are made from fossil fuels and a lot of nasty chemicals.

And ere you seriously asking why there would be so much focus on bags vs. air quality and cancer risks? Duh - you can actually do something about the bags! But what, exactly, can the city do right now about the risk of living next to a freeway? Think about it because it's far from being an issue where only poor neighborhoods are getting short shrift. My $500,000 Eastlake condo is within 125 ft of the freeway. The skyrocketing cancer risks you refer to are for ALL property within 600 ft of the freeway - not just Georgetown. Think of the number of homes, schools, hospitals, and retirement homes in Seattle that fit that criteria.

Absolutely the issue should be front and center - and think how scary that is in terms of property values and health impacts. Personally, I'd vote today to lid the freeway along all the residential corridors (which would of course creat more valuable real estate) but not so sure that even Seattle voters would be willing to step up to that solution.

Saratoga

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 2:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm curious why one would spend half a million dollars on a condo on what I assume is Franklin or Boylston Avenue E., right next to or under I-5. This is a serious question. I just did a search on Windermere and found plenty of houses — actual houses — for sale in the city for under $400,000, nowhere near a freeway. There's even a house for sale for $295,000 a couple blocks west of Frink Park.

Accessibility to Downtown? I suppose, but getting from the CD to Downtown is pretty easy. Is it a view thing?

As for lidding the freeway, I'd love that, too, but I can only imagine how expensive that would prove to be. You might vote for it, and I might consider it, but I think if it were put to a public vote it would go down in flames.

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Steptoe wanted links to the right to a safe environment. Here are some starting points:
http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/163079/166685/1800707maldives.htm

http://books.google.com/books?id=m-CIrnLNj-8C&pg;=PA13&lpg;=PA13&dq;=right+to+a+safe+environment&source;=web&ots;=gOG_T6Koxc&sig;=aE7XSavE3T0tcuS32clRSTeG22c&hl;=en&sa;=X&oi;=book_result&resnum;=5&ct;=result

http://soil.environmental-expert.com/resultEachPressRelease.aspx?cid=28518&codi;=38514&idproducttype;=8

http://portal.unesco.org/shs/en/ev.php-URL_ID=4663&URL;_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL;_SECTION=201.html

http://www.helsinki.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1152328234

Would greatly appreciate any information on a "Right to My Life Style."

bkochis

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Just returned from two weeks in Egypt-world travel can give you a whole new perspective on things. Clean air and water, not to mention freedom are taken far too much for granted by us who don't see the rest of the globe. We should not tax plastic bags, we should ban them along with plastic bottles!!! The amount of plastic garbage would literally make you sick if it was here. The amount of oil (petroleum) used to make a plastic bag or bottle, neither of which will break down in the environment for a long, long time seems to me great folly.

Ice9

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Benjamin, you're comparing today's prices to two years ago.

Of course you pay for a view (and it is spectacular) - and living here takes 1 or 2 minutes to get to I-5, either way as well as access to 4 bus lines.

I'm thinking a 3 bedroom, 1700 sq ft townhouse built in 2000 with a view is a bit more attractive than the $295,000 Leschi house.

Saratoga

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Benjamin, you're comparing today's prices to two years ago.

Of course you pay for a view (and it is spectacular) - and living here takes 1 or 2 minutes to get to I-5, either way as well as access to 4 bus lines.

I'm thinking a 3 bedroom, 1700 sq ft townhouse built in 2000 with a view is a bit more attractive than the $295,000 Leschi house.

Saratoga

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 8:46 p.m. Inappropriate

bkochis - don't need weak, fringe links, its simply " life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness " .

oh, i forgot, this is Seattle, a place where any funny fringe and the mayor/council can simply dictate !

keep trying though, you are amusing !

Posted Sun, Nov 16, 9:08 p.m. Inappropriate

A bit more attractive, possibly — except for the proximity to the freeway. Good point on the price comparison, but still. If I had $500,000 to spend on housing, I'd always opt for more land, less noise, and less pollution, and give up the view, I think. To each his own.

Posted Mon, Nov 17, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Seems to me that one of the biggest pollutants caused by this debate are the ridiculous straw men constructed by the bag industry so they can argue their absurd position on equal footing.

Would have thought the website Plastic Bag Makers for More Plastic Bags would have answered many of these questions months ago. Check it out: theplasticman.wordpress.com

Posted Mon, Nov 17, 10:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, steptoe, if you don't like UNESCO or Helsinki Watch (fringe?), then try James W. Nickel, "The Human Right to a Safe Environment: Philosophical Perspectives on Its Scope and Justication," Yale Journal of Internal Law 18 (1993): 281-95.

But you still haven't provided a defense of a right to a life style, which is what you were claiming to have. Seattle occasionally imposes a burning ban on the use of fireplaces in the city, because our right to clean air and, hence, a safe environoment, trumps your right to do as you please and send particulate matter into the atomosphere that we all breathe. This is so well-established in law and common sense, I can't for the life of me (pun intended) understand your point. You get the right to pollute the land and air because you claim some right to a "life style"?

bkochis

Posted Tue, Nov 18, 2:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm still trying to figure out how I am supposed to bag my garbage (a requirement here in Seattle) without my grocery bag. I do compost and recycle but life being life, there is still some garbage left at the end of the day.

Am I supposed to buy additional plastic bags to convey my loose garbage to the apartment building's dumpster? Isn't this equally wasteful, although probably cheaper than paying 20 cents per bag?

I'm happy to pay 20 cents to bag my garbage in my plastic or paper grocery bag. At least I'm getting two uses from that bag. As opposed to only one use for the garbage bag that I buy off the shelf.

Unless I take my purchased garbage bag to the grocery to carry the groceries home...hmm...

RLJ

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