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

The first grocery plastic bag, in the late 1970s Credit: 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.

Daniels said paper bags have greater greenhouse-gas emissions than plastic, pointing to the need for seven truckloads of paper bags to equal the number of plastic bags moved by one truck. If advocates want to protect the environment, Daniels said, a ban “is absolutely the opposite of what they want to do.” And he said that recycling of plastic bags has grown rapidly beyond the 6 percent nationally cited by the report, reaching close to 15 percent last year, and there are technical advances that eliminate the problems with recyling the bags. Additionally, he said, some 45 to 60 percent of bags are re-used before they are disposed of. (For more on Daniels’ views, see a Huffington Post article he wrote.)

For Seattle, following neighboring cities in an environmental cause is not the usual order of business. But as the Environment Washington report notes, many cities in the West and abroad, as well as entire nations, have banned plastic bags.

The advocates are essentially asking Seattle to adopt the same ordinance that Bellingham passed, and they note that there was a great deal of community and business buy-in there. Asked whether the Seattle City Council, which was so inventive in developing its earlier bag ordinance, could settle for following the lead of a smaller neighbor, Surfrider’s Kennedy said, “My hope is that the Seattle City Council is humble enough to look at the Bellingham ordinance and say, ‘Nice work, guys.’ ”

O’Brien declined to give details of his proposal until next week, but he said it will be “really close to what Bellingham did and it is a really good model.” Given the referendum history, however, the ban’s fate may hang on whether Seattle voters are willing to say to the council, “Nice work.”

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