Green Acre Radio: Plastic bag ban heats up in Seattle

City Council is moving ahead but critics argue for recycling.

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Seattle City Councilmembers take on the plastic bag industry.

City Council is moving ahead but critics argue for recycling.

Despite pride in being the Emerald City, environmentally savvy and beautiful to boot, Seattle is behind the curve when it comes to using plastic bags. Three years ago the city would have been among the first in the nation to ban plastic bags from grocery stores. But the attempt failed when voters were presented with an initiative funded by the American Chemistry Council. This year the city is following the “Bellingham Model” and those of D.C., Portland, Oregon, and Edmonds, Washington. 

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The plastic bag is hard to see in the dark, but Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien says the one stuck in a tree outside his window serves as a symbol for why he hopes the city bans plastic bags at grocery and retail stores. “It’s been there for the last couple of months just staring at me as I’ve been working on this and they’re just out there.” Seattle uses some 292 million plastic carry out bags a year and the state more than two billion. “For something that may give us a few minutes of convenience when you walk out of the store, it then sticks around in our environment for hundreds of years. It just doesn’t biodegrade.”

A study by the UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters found plastic in every sample of water tested from South Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands. Joel Baker is the Center’s Director. “Some of it’s not even noticeable to the naked eye; you really have to use a microscope to see it. But everywhere we look we find plastic in Puget Sound.” Concentrations vary widely. “Some places have not much at all. Some places have quite a bit.” Not because some water is more polluted, says Baker. “It’s because surface material tends to aggregate in a non-uniform way.”

The physics of wind and tides work to accumulate plastic and other debris in specific locations. “Polymer scientists who really understand plastics believe that plastics last forever in the ocean, that there’s no effective breakdown.” Microscopic particles are consumed by filter-feeders, shellfish and turtles. Last year a beached gray whale was found to have 20 plastic bags in its stomach.

Three years ago the city council and environmental community tried to stop the use of plastic and paper from grocery stores with a 20 cent fee. The council approved the proposal but voters turned it down. This year Councilmember O’Brien says the city has learned from bag bans around the country. Washington, D.C,. and Bellingham are prime examples. “They put a nickel fee on paper and plastic and within the first month 80 percent of the consumption of disposable bags went away.”

The American Chemistry Council is still fighting the ban, but this time the criticism is coming from the Progressive Bag Affiliates, a chemistry council project dedicated to promoting recycling of plastic bags. The chairman of the Progressive Bag Alliance is also vice president of Hilex Poly, which calls itself the world’s largest plastic bag recycling facility. Hilex Poly wasn’t available for comment but in a letter to Councilmember O’Brien, they said their goal is to, quote “develop a statewide solution that reduces litter, creates jobs and makes Washington a leader in plastics recycling.”

Another vocal critic of the plastic bag ban, the Washington Food Industry Association, agrees. They say the City Council needs an aggressive education campaign to encourage consumers to recycle. President Jan Gee: “We had asked the City Council after the last ordinance if they would like to partner with us because our stores have done a lot.” Gee refers to in-store recycle bins and nickel reimbursements when people bring their own bag.

Councilmember O’Brien agrees recycling needs improvement. Only 13 percent of plastic bags are currently recycled in Seattle. But recycling isn’t the answer, he says, zero use and waste are. As for suggestions for an aggressive recycling campaign, “we can’t afford to do that right now. We can’t afford to do that anytime, especially now. So we’re going to step back and say let’s stop using these altogether.” Costs associated with recycling and disposing of plastic bags come to around $2.5 million every year.

At a public hearing last Monday (Dec. 5), approval for a plastic bag ban ran high, as it did for those who poke fun at industry. Jake Harris, also known as the Plastic Bag Monster when costumed in hundreds of plastic bags, told the crowd the American Chemistry Council was already lobbying in Olympia. “They are plastic bag lobbyists and they have helped the cause of the endangered bag monster. Yes. They have already started lobbying in Olympia for a ban on the banning of bags. ... And by next summer we’ll be meeting with Barack Obama and passing a nationwide ban on the banning of plastic bags. ... Mark my words.”

Seattle’s proposed Plastic Bag Ban goes to the full City Council on December 19.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.