The city of Bellingham showed this week how controversial ideas can gain traction in small towns without the bitterness and confrontation that define politics in the big city.
With little fuss and no anger, the Bellingham City Council voted Monday to ban the use of disposable, “single use” plastic bags for bagging groceries and other retail goods. Backers of the ban are confident there are lots more to come, as cities move ahead of the states to confront plastic pollution and its effects on the world’s oceans.
As the second Washington city to ban the bag (Edmonds did it first in 2009), the City of Subdued Excitement escaped the wrath of a giant trade organization representing the bag makers. Just two years ago, the American Chemical Council spent $1.4 million beating up on a Seattle ballot measure that would have required retailers to collect a 20 cent fee for each plastic bag.
But if the ACC flexed its biceps in Bellingham, City Council members seemed not to notice. They voted 7-to-0 for the ban.
The Bellingham measure closely resembles a proposed Oregon state law that sharply divided legislators and interest groups in that state.
Some of the key features of the measure voted on by the council include: requiring merchants to charge at least 5 cents as a pass-through fee for each paper bag (which must be made of at least 40 percent recycled material) provided to customers; allowing restaurants for health reasons to offer disposable plastic bags for take-out items; and delaying for one-year the effect of the ordinance so retailers can use up their inventories of the disposable plastic bags and shoppers can get used to the change. There are also a series of partial exemptions, including free bags for low-income shoppers; free distribution of recycled paper bags by farmers' market merchants; and hardship exemptions of up to one year that the mayor can approve.
Councilmember Seth Fleetwood, who sponsored Bellingham’s ordinance, said he was thrilled at its passage and gratified that no council member voted against it.
“These bags are toxic, they’re poisoning marine life and, and there’s no reason to keep adding them to the environment.” he told Crosscut. “We don’t need them, and it makes sense to get rid of them.”
Not that there wasn’t opposition. When Fleetwood first offered his ordinance back in March, public reaction hit the proverbial fan. The Bellingham Herald’s first story on the proposal drew 343 comments. As a proportion of the readership, that’s like 17,000 comments in The Seattle Times. Most of the commenters were unhappy. That’s putting it mildly, which they did not.
Fleetwood credited the original authors of the ordinance, local residents Brooks Anderson and Jill McIntyre Witt, with organizing grassroots support, cooling down the debate, and winning over council members and grocery retailers. Large chains such as Fred Meyer and Albertsons endorsed the proposed ban early. It took longer to persuade the dominant grocery company in Bellingham, Haggen Food Inc., a privately owned company with 30 stores in Washington and Oregon. A few days before the ordinance was to be heard in committee, Haggens announced its support, as did The Markets, another independent chain.
Unlike Seattle’s experience, there was no industry-backed campaign to whip up the opposition in Bellingham. And Anderson and McIntyre Witt’s organization, “Bag It Bellingham,” gathered more than 3,400 signatures to present to the city council in support of the ban.
Their campaign highlighted findings by organizations such as Algalita Marine Research Foundation, that show vast areas of the ocean polluted beyond redemption by floating plastic garbage, with an associated loss of fish, marine mammals, and birds. Critics of plastic bags also say they waste resources.
The sponsor of the Oregon bill that provided the model for Bellingham, state Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton, came within a single vote of getting it through the Oegon Senate last March, in the face of an all-out assault by the plastics lobby.
Hass claims an officer of Hilex Poly, the nation’s largest maker of plastic shopping bags, offered to build a commercial recycling center in Hass’s senate district if he would drop the bill. “I told them Oregon’s not for sale,” he told Crosscut. A spokesperson for Hilex Poly firmly denied Hass’s account, in an interview with The Oregonian newspaper.
Hass says he still hopes states will ban plastic shopping bags, rather than the cities. “We need uniform laws within the states,” he told Crosscut. “The grocery chains could find it really difficult to adjust to a patchwork set of ordinances city by city. However,” he continued, “if we can’t get it done at the state level, then we’ll have to do what Bellingham has done.”
That process would seem to be underway. In a phone interview, Heather Trim, toxics program manager for People for Puget Sound, praised the Bellingham action and said her organization will press Seattle officials to try again. The city of Portland is working out details of a proposed ordinance modeled after Hass’s bill. Ten other Oregon cities passed resolutions supporting that legislation, and some of are drafting ordinances that will copy Bellingham’s rewrite of the Oregon bill that almost passed.