Best of 2009: How I learned to love the bag fee

When you look into the oceans of problems plastic bags create, the case for Seattle's well-crafted grocery-bag fee becomes overwhelming. And the opponents' arguments are underwhelming.
Crosscut archive image.

The first grocery plastic bag, in the late 1970s

When you look into the oceans of problems plastic bags create, the case for Seattle's well-crafted grocery-bag fee becomes overwhelming. And the opponents' arguments are underwhelming.

Editor's note: This story, another in our series of Best Crosscuts of 2009, originally was published on August 3, 2009.

Should Seattle voters take a modest step to dike a small part of the rise of disposable plastics flooding the world? Referendum 1 on the August 18 primary ballot puts the question by asking for a 20-cent fee for the disposable paper or plastic bag you otherwise would still get 'ꀜfree'ꀝ at the drugstore, convenience store, or grocery.

Your green reflex won'ꀙt help you decide this one. The green voice for yes comes from some of the familiar environmentalists — always worth listening to, never to be given blind allegiance. On the other side the voice for no is embodied in well over a million greenbacks thrown against Referendum 1 by the people who make disposable plastic bags. With them spending at that rate, you won'ꀙt be able to avoid listening, even when you get tired of it.

Seattle'ꀙs Referendum 1 isn'ꀙt a single-minded crusade to save the world from plastics. Seattle shouldn'ꀙt try to do so. Plastic'ꀙs future is here, just as Mr. McGuire in The Graduate, a movie enshrined for younger generations on YouTube, famously predicted four decades ago to Ben Braddock.

I started out skeptical of Referendum 1, especially when it was first touted as a greenhouse gas reduction measure. That seemed a real stretch. But I'ꀙve come around, endorsed the referendum and kicked in a $100 contribution. Here'ꀙs why.

Plastics are truly valuable in a host of realms. But it'ꀙs also true that with the use of plastics exploding at exponential rates, their manufacture and their very long-term persistence offer some real problems. There can always be too much of a good thing. Use can go beyond usefulness. That'ꀙs the case with disposable plastic bags. We are using too much plastic for more disposable bags than we need. And paper grocery bags, too — in Seattle, 360 million paper and plastic bags a year.

Referendum 1, we must remind ourselves, is even-handed. It'ꀙs not a push just to besmirch plastic and switch all the shoppers to kraft brown paper bags, which people around these parts used to call a sack. Paper grocery bags or sacks have their own problems. So no need here to argue about whether taking home the shopping in paper or plastic has the bigger carbon footprint or consumes the greater space in landfills.

Instead, Referendum 1 might be called the 'ꀜdisposable bags are no free lunch'ꀝ program. The idea is that it would be cheaper all around, and usually better, if you carried your groceries home in an old-fashioned shopping bag that you would use and reuse. Like for example, re-using gloves, a hat, or a razor. A reusable shopping bag is much better than a plastic or paper high-tech throwaway product that has to be sorted out by Allied Waste when dumped by the recycle truck at the waste station at Third and Lander in SODO. Or blown around the city landscape as litter. Or, if it'ꀙs plastic, ingested by fish, turtles, whales, dolphins, shrimp, and marine micro-organisms after its found its way to break slowly, slowly into smaller pieces in Puget Sound and ultimately the oceans. These polyethylene plastic bags break up, but they don'ꀙt biodegrade. Ever.

If Referendum 1 passes, it'ꀙs still your choice. You can still take home a disposable bag, paper or plastic, from the store for just 20 cents. Undoubtedly sometimes you will, but a lot less often than before.

From watching the Referendum 1 debate, it seems that the people with the biggest interest in keeping the world safe for 'ꀜfree'ꀝ disposable plastic bags are the people who make them. Specialized and privately held plastics bag manufacturers. Think Superbag Corporation in Houston, Texas. And a website, More Than Just a Bag, so green you would think the company had gone to the other side. Or Interplast in Lolita, Texas — the company whose pride is "Turning Plastics into Gold." And Advance Polybag, Inc. in Sugar Land, Texas.

These manufacturers band together under the umbrella of the American Chemistry Council, in an industry association called Progressive Bag Affiliates. They concede, 'ꀜMore can be done to address environmental concerns.'ꀝ But Progressive Bag Affiliates do not want to talk about the troubling long-term questions of non-degradable contributions to land and marine pollution. The environmental tune they want to hum is about the vaunted opportunities to do better recycling. That'ꀙs the ever-convenient, but not automatically satisfactory, common default for most tough 'ꀜwhat do we do with this stuff'ꀝ questions presented to a throw-away society.

But that'ꀙs only part of the industry'ꀙs strategic arsenal of shifting discussion away from solutions (cloth bags?) and always keeping ready the big artillery of litigation. Not a word, "progressive" or not, on whether the world might make more sense if disposable plastic grocery bags were a smaller feature of tomorrow'ꀙs life.

So they are eager to remind you that you probably aren'ꀙt so happy with city government these days (but we don'ꀙt actually need snow plows for plastic bags, at least not yet). And that you don'ꀙt like taxes (but the bag fee obviously is not a tax). The radio and newspaper ads from the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax even suggest that Referendum 1 gives an unfair break for the big guys, saying that Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, or Fred Meyer 'ꀜmay be exempt'ꀝ from charging the fee.

That'ꀙs true for Wal-Mart, because they don'ꀙt have a store in Seattle — a little bit of local knowledge that must have eluded the ad writers. But Costco won'ꀙt be exempt from the fee and neither will Target or Fred Meyer. That'ꀙs clear when you read the referendum. But when was the last time cost-conscious Costco put your groceries in a disposable plastic bag, which should tell you something about 'ꀜfree'ꀝ bags. And when you go to Renton to join the crowds that shop at IKEA, you'ꀙve been paying a nickel at the checkout for every plastic bag you'ꀙve decided you needed since 2007.

Friends of plastic bags have also mounted a morality play to suggest that food banks and food bank customers will suffer a new 'ꀜpressure point'ꀝ from the fee. Hard to figure, since no disposable bag given by food banks to their patrons will trigger the 20-cent fee. That'ꀙs an understandable exemption, of course, and there'ꀙs no doubt of it in the referendum. There are other exemptions. The thin bag you put your broccoli in at the produce section isn'ꀙt covered. Neither is the bag you shovel pistachios into from the bulk food bins before you scribble the bin number on the bag tie with those little square pens on the coiled cords.

Last week Lilliputian Edmonds actually passed a ban on disposable plastic bags, joining many other communities and even countries around the world that have taken such a step and not yet seen the collapse of modern life. Edmonds was not moved by the arguments from Progressive Bag Affiliates. It enacted, from the standpoint of plastics, a far sterner measure than Referendum 1 offers in Seattle.

In the end, neither the green enviros (Send a message to big oil; hands off Seattle) nor the plastic bag manufacturing companies seem ready to trust voters with the question Referendum 1 might best come down to. Does the cost in trouble and mischief of a throwaway bag outweigh its benefits? Why not trigger the think-twice disincentive that a small fee puts to you at the checkout?

Cutting down on trash in the waste stream makes common sense. It'ꀙs efficient management; 360 million disposable bags in Seattle in a year is a lot of solid waste. When two-thirds of them, an optimistic guesstimate, end up in the recycling, it'ꀙs not much by weight but it'ꀙs a lot of hand sorting off the conveyor belts at Allied Waste and a big piece of what has to be untangled from the machinery in the one-shift-a-day maintenance downtime at the plant. And the resulting bales of old bags to be shipped to China are a low-grade re-sale product.

So why burden our solid waste processing with all that, when we can avoid some of it? If you want government to cost less, think of ways we can give it less to do. There really is no such thing as a 'ꀜfree'ꀝ disposable bag.

There's another, perhaps more important factor: We need to deal with tens of millions of bags and tons of plastic that euphemistically "go fugitive" after their use. First onto the sidewalks and into the street and parks, then clogging the storm drains and blowing across the beaches. Ultimately into the water, where the unseen trouble really starts. The more they slowly are shredded by waves and tides, the worse the problem. They do not go away. These plastics have no half-life.

It'ꀙs a bit like old satellites as space junk, only a lot worse. There is plenty of documentary evidence that plastic junk is accumulating in the oceans, some of it in great swirling mats of debris of all sizes in the mid-Pacific. Poignant pictures of sea turtles choking on plastic bags they mistook for edible jellyfish are bad enough; worse are fish or whales whose autopsied stomachs are full of plastic bag trash.

The larger problem in the marine environment is way down the food chain where the smallest particles of plastic are consumed and then passed up the chain in ever concentrating levels of non-nourishing and toxic meals. That's our mindless gift to the creatures of the sea.

Living in the modern world, with all the modern miracles like plastic, one always meets an unavoidable environmental reality: There is no "away." That'ꀙs the catch with the conveniences, if that'ꀙs what they'ꀙre called, of the throw-away society.

Passing Referendum 1 means that together we'ꀙll use tens of millions fewer bags. And, with similar sentiment quite literally sweeping the world, it is likely that life on Earth as we know it will stand a bit better chance of surviving the human onslaught. All in all, Referendum 1 is in step toward a saner future. Plastic bag makers, even if its worth millions to them to persuade us otherwise, have a much better and fairer prospect of adapting to that world than marine creatures have to the triumph of plastics.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.