Seattle's new motto: In banning plastic bags, look to Bellingham

Is the Seattle City Council really humble enough to follow a winning model developed elsewhere? Advocates hope so.

Mike O'Brien

Mike O'Brien Seattle City Council

Puget Sound

Puget Sound Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)

The first grocery plastic bag, in the late 1970s

The first grocery plastic bag, in the late 1970s Flickr

The first attempt to get rid of plastic bags was ever so Seattle: well-meaning, aimed at an environmental problem, but seeming at once intrusive and self-aggrandizing on the part of city leaders. And, while arguably moderate, it was complex, a bit convoluted, even clever. The 2008 ordinance didn't quite ban plastic bags, but it required a 20 cent fee on each bag, introduced a 90-day education program, and envisioned giving a couple free reuseable bags to each household. 

Too clever by half, not to mention big brotherish and expensive, in the view of the voters, who rejected it in a 2009 referendum. The level of disgust was perhaps best illustrated by a grocery clerk who remarked to a customer, "Why don't they just line us up and shoot us?"

Since then, to the embarrassment of Seattle's pretensions as the always-green Emerald City, two other Puget Sound-region cities, Edmonds and Bellingham, have adopted their own bans. As The Seattle Times' Lynn Thompson reported, the Seattle City Council is preparing for another try.

Some environmental activists see bans like the ones in Bellingham and Edmonds as bringing more benefits than the more nuanced approach Seattle tried originally. Certainly, to the public, a ban may sound more reasonable. After all, many voters asked in Seattle, if the bags are so bad for the environment, why not just ban them rather than allow them in return for a fee, especially one largely going into city coffers?

Seattle Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who will unveil a proposal on Monday (Nov. 21), was a Sierra Club activist when the earlier city ordinance, supported by the club, went down to defeat. He said that a lot was learned from the referendum vote, including the discoveries that the council's proposed 20-cent fee on plastic and paper bags was too expensive and that voters didn't understand the reluctance to enact a ban.

O'Brien spoke approvingly of an Environment Washington report released on Thursday (Nov. 17) pointing to the widespread presence of plastics in water samples from Puget Sound, where chinook salmon and orcas are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The report cites the presence of plastic in every single water sample taken by University of Washington Tacoma researchers in studies over broad stretches of Puget Sound. At a press conference on Thursday, Julie Masura of UWT's Center for Urban Waters said efforts to trace the types of plastic have begun, but the contribution of plastic bags to the problem hasn't been quantified. The report also notes that 20 plastic bags were discovered in the stomach of a dead grey whale found on a beach in 2010 by West Seattle residents. But the report also noted that the animal's stomach was "full of trash," and Washington Environment's Katrina Rosen said the research doesn't establish if the plastic bags caused the whale's death.

The ban's supporters, including Jody Kennedy of the Surfrider Foundation, acknowledge that plastic bags are a small part of a larger problem, the harm plastic from many sources does to marine life and the ocean environment. But they say banning the bags is a good place to start on the larger plastic problem. Asked whether paper bags should also be banned (Bellingham's ordinance requires a 5-cent charge on paper bags but doesn't ban them), Rosen said plastic was the better starting point, because, unlike paper, it never breaks down. Rosen also noted that plastic bags create particular problems for many recycling stations, sometimes getting caught in equipment.

A spokesperson at the American Chemistry Council, which played a leading role in the expensive campaign that defeated the earlier bag ordinance, couldn't say whether the group was monitoring developments, or whether it might join an effort to overturn any new legislation. But she referrred a reporter to Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler, who said the renewed effort is misguided: "Certainly, there are more responsible ways that are not punitive to the people of Seattle. They have already spoken on this." Daniels said plastic-bag bans destroy a "uniquely American-based" job source, which employs about 10,000 people.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

"O'Brien spoke approvingly of an Environment Washington report released on Thursday (Nov. 17) pointing to the widespread presence of plastics in water samples from Puget Sound, where chinook salmon and orcas are protected under the Endangered Species Act."

Hmmm.... King County reports 200 TONS of pet waste are deposited in the Puget Sound region EVERY DAY. This waste runs into our streams, our lakes and Puget Sound (where chinook salmon and orcas are protected under the Endangered Species Act!). Did the Environment Washington report mention that HUGE environmental impact? Is Mike O'Brien aware of it? Is our bloated Salmon Saving bureaucracy nothing but a stimulus for public employee union jobs, cash cow for connected non-profits and power grab for the Democratic Party? Don't expect answers - or results - from our ever-increasing Salmon Saving bureaucracy.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Question 1: If the plastic bags that we throw away here in Seattle end up in landfills, how is it that we hear so much about their presence in local waterways? Do they somehow migrate from their landfill locations? Rather, I should think that the plastics that go into our local dumpsters are not the culprits here. Those plastic bags found in waterways could be coming from China, for all we know--especially as, we're so often told, such products "never break down" and stay on the planet forever. Enacting a Seattle ban on plastic bags might have zero effect on their presence in our waters.

Question 2: If Seattle truly lives up to its reputation of having one of the brightest and best educated populations in the country, then why must Seattle residents be beaten over the head with draconian measures to get them to 'do the right thing' and change their disposal habits? Why wouldn't an education campaign work just as well, if not better? (Don't forget that there are still plenty of surrounding communities which don't have such bans; so Seattle residents who insist on disposing of plastic bags here will continue to have the opportunity to do so.)

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

I remember being in a Ralph's store in Palm Springs my senior year in high school. The checker put my two 2-liter bottles of Tab into one of those sacks of the future. Not three steps from the check stand, the bottles fell through the bottom of the bag and bounced across the floor. I've never liked the damned things since. But ban them? Somebody must like them; why should I force my preferences on others?

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I own a ton of canvas bags, but I still have trouble remembering to bring them with me when I go to a store. If parking lots had un-ignorable reminders about bringing your bags with you inside, that would help a lot of people like me who are struggling to change an ingrained habit.

As an aside, we have found a great way to reduce bag consumption and dramatically reduce driving as well is to use one of the grocery delivery services out there. Safeway.com runs one with a small delivery fee, and Amazon Fresh (fresh.amazon.com) runs another with free delivery after certain thresholds. Spud.com is another services that focuses on organic produce but also has PCC- and Whole Foods-like groceries (with free delivery after certain thresholds). There are other similar services. Using these services has reduced our driving by about 2,000 miles per year (since we track mileage for taxes, we know this for sure), and carbon footprints goes down the more people use delivery services like these since it pools the transportation of groceries to homes into dramatically fewer trips. The gas savings alone easily make up for the marginally higher prices on some items, and if your time is limited (e.g. you have kids), delivery pays for itself in time as well.

Now, back to bags: when we get grocery deliveries, they come in reusable hard-plastic bins and minimal to no bags inside, depending on what you order. Frozen and refrigerated items come in reusable cooler bags, but boxed and canned items use no bags at all. A $200 grocery purchase at a conventional grocery store involves anywhere from five to ten bags, paper or plastic, but the same purchase from a grocery delivery service involves only two or three bags.

Just some food for thought.

smacgry

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

It takes several times the energy to make paper bags than plastic.

One way to reduce some plastic is by adding VLDPE (very low density polyethylene) resin, then downscaling the thickness. This would reduce overall weight and eliminate need to double bag.

Expecting those of us who get over 80 inches of rain a year to use paper to carry groceries is ridiculous. We wouldn't get to car fast enough before the bags fell apart.

Perhaps if macronutrients such as iron, phosphorus, silicic acid were incorporated into the plastic, the ocean's phytoplankton and landbased detrivores would be enriched by the plastic.

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 4:32 p.m. Inappropriate

@Randy
I've been using paper bags here in the PNW for over 30 years and have yet to have the rain destroy one before I got it home. I have had plastic bags rip before I got them in the cart.

I use recyclable bags mostly because my home was filling up with unused bags of both types. I do reuse plastic bags for cat litter, and paper for transport of things but not at the rate I get groceries.

As for an incentive to remember your bags, $1 bag would do it. And if they just handed me those cool reusable bags oh well.

Paper could be less energy expensive if we used industrial hemp instead of wood fiber. But that's another argument.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Nov 18, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate

It's worth noting that the supposed "model" Bellingham plan isn't even in effect yet. It'll be interesting to see how much "buy-in" from the community is actually evident next year, when the law actually does go into effect and people realize -- most of them for the first time -- what their local government has done on their behalf.

rjudd

Posted Sat, Nov 19, 12:54 a.m. Inappropriate

It's also worth noting that most often, when a law goes into effect, people in general do not know what government has done "on their behalf".

Sometimes laws are written for the greater good, and, sadly, sometimes not.

The question is whether this bag law is for the greater good.

I personally feel that while some will find this change inconvenient or unprofitable, the ill effects of uncontrolled bag detritus are arguably not good for the general health of our environment. Legislated mitigations or the expense to try and control improperly handled remains would probably be more onerous and expensive than just banning them.

Posted Sat, Nov 19, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Clearly you could say the same about most laws. My point is simply that the Bham law is being widely hailed, in this piece and others, as a successful, publicly accepted solution to a problem, when in fact it's not even close to being implemented yet, and there's no telling how it will work in the real world -- or whether it will even prove politically acceptable by the public. If I were a politician, I'd be cautious about emulating something that's simply a concept.

rjudd

Posted Thu, Dec 1, 11:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Plastic bags use far less energy to create than paper, and are responsible for far less pollution.

Less than 1% of all litter and less than 1/2% of one percent of all landfill waste is plastic bags. Considering that produce bags, meat bags, and other plastic bag packaging is still allowed (chip bags, candy wrappers, and other packaging that keeps food fresh), how can anyone really believe that a ban would have ANY measurable effect?

This proposed ban is based on the success of the Bellingham ban, but that doesn't go into effect until the middle of next year! What success or failure could it have had?

kenholmes

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