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Saving Puget Sound: Seattle’s proposed plastic bag ban


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As you have probably heard about or read about by now, Seattle City Council has introduced a bill that would make a great step towards protecting Puget Sound and ocean waters and reducing unnecessary waste by banning single-use plastic carryout bags.

We will hold a public hearing on the plastic bag ban bill on December 5, starting at 5:30pm. The hearing will be held in Council Chambers on the 2nd floor of City Hall (600 Fourth Ave). I understand that not everyone can make a trip down to City Hall in the evening for a public hearing, but if you are willing and able I would love to see you there to voice your support. You can also submit written testimony if you are unable to be there in person.

Plastic bag litter stuck in a tree across the street from City Hall

This new law would encourage the use of reusable bags when shopping by banning plastic bags outright. Paper bags will still be available, but will cost a nickel. This nickel serves as a modest monetary reminder to bring your reusable bah. The nickel is also kept by retailers to help them recover the costs of switching to paper bags–this is not a new tax and the nickel doesn’t go to the city.

While plastic carry out bags at retailers and grocery stores will be banned, thin plastic bags that are used for meats and produce in grocery stores are still allowed because of the public health function they play.

Banning these plastics will help protect Puget Sound, ocean waters and marine life. A recent study by UW-Tacoma researchers, highlighted in the new report by Environment Washington, found that every single water sample taken in Puget sound–from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Elliott Bay to the southern inlet in Olympia–contained small particles of plastic. The problem of plastics in our waters is pervasive and alarming. For an incredible visual account, check out the work of local photojournalist Chris Jordan and his images of dead albatross chicks on Midway Island.

Some people have written and called my office to say they already voted down this measure a few years ago. Well, I believe our current proposal takes into account the concerns Seattle voters had with Council’s last attempt at curbing plastic bag use in Seattle. Instead of a $0.20 tax on paper or plastic bags, we are banning plastics outright and charging a nickel for paper as a reminder to bring reusables. And, we heard in 2009 that voters were concerned about the impacts  of a bag fee on low-income earners. So this time we are exempting people on state and federal assistance programs.

We know the plastic industry will fight this proposal, so we encourage everyone who thinks this is the right thing to show your support and come out to the hearing on Monday or write or call in with your support to City Council (Council contact info).

This bill is running through the Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee that I chair, and we had our first committee meeting on the ordinance last week. Since our ordinance is modeled after Bellingham’s, we invited Bellingham Councilmember Seth Fleetwood down to share his experiences with our committee. We also heard testimony from Cedar Grove Composting, Seattle’s current contract holder for organics recycling. Cedar Grove supports this measure because of all of the plastics contamination that they have to pull out of their composting operations. Below are some photos of examples they brought to show the committee.

Hope to see you Monday night!

Above: Me with Bellingham Councilmember Seth Fleetwood

Below: (top) a sample of plastic bags from Cedar Grove Compost facility in Maple Valley, (middle) a bag full of various plastic bags, (bottom) other plastics contaminating the compost operations 

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Comment from John S
Time December 5, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I like the idea of charging for paper bags but I don’t like banning plastic bags. I don’t feel certain that paper is acceptable and plastic is evil. In fact, some people say plastic is more benign than paper. So leave the plastic bags as an option, and make vendors charge for ALL bags they hand the customer- produce bags, meat bags, bags at the pharmacy, etc. Make everyone pay the fee, too. ‘Poor’ people can bring back bags just like everyone else. Or find a way to give them durable reusable bags.

I think you should try a fee-for-use approach before a ban. More support for charging for bags, not banning them comes from the report you cited. It says, “After the district [Washington, D.C.] implemented a … 5 cent tax on plastic bags, the number of bags distributed by food retailers fell from 22.5 million to 3.3 million per month [85%].” That’s an excellent change. It was accomplished by just making people pay for what they use.

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