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Seattle approves ban on plastic shopping bags

By Lynn Thompson, The Seattle Times –

SEATTLE — The fight over plastic bags could move to the Washington state Legislature in the coming session as environmentalists seek to expand the ban unanimously approved Monday by the Seattle City Council to the entire state.

At the same time, the plastics industry, which poured $1.4 million into defeating a 20-cent Seattle disposable-bag fee in 2009, suggested it would seek statewide legislation to encourage recycling, rather than fighting bans in every city.

“A statewide solution that includes recycling is more comprehensive. … It also supports an American industry that provides tens of thousands of jobs,” Mark Daniels, vice president for sustainability and environmental policy for South Carolina-based Hilex Poly Co., a leading manufacturer of plastic bags, said in a statement after the vote.

Seattle joins Edmonds, Bellingham and Mukilteo in approving a ban on thin-film, plastic shopping bags. Only Edmonds’ ordinance has taken effect. The Seattle measure is to begin July 1.

In addition to banning plastic bags at grocery, retail and convenience stores, the Seattle ordinance imposes a nickel fee on paper grocery bags to offset the higher cost of paper to stores and to remind shoppers to bring reusable bags.

The legislation had the support of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents the state’s largest supermarket chains, including Safeway, Fred Meyer, QFC and Albertsons.

Environmental groups also urged passage as a relatively easy way to eliminate a source of litter that ends up in Puget Sound and can be hazardous to marine life. A gray whale that washed up in West Seattle last year was found with more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach.

“It’s huge to see Seattle being a leader to protect Puget Sound wildlife,” said Katrina Rosen, field director for Environment Washington, a member of the coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and People for Puget Sound, that supported the ban.

Rosen said Environment Washington plans to work for a statewide ban on plastic bags when the Legislature convenes next month. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, introduced such a bill last year and said he would file it again this coming session.

Meanwhile, Rosen said the coalition that supported the Seattle ban would continue its efforts to have other cities in the region enact similar bans. Olympia, Port Townsend, Bainbridge Island and Lake Forest Park all are considering bans, she said.

The plastics industry opposed the Seattle ban, saying plastic bags are convenient, reusable and represent a fraction of the trash that ends up in Puget Sound. They also said paper bags consume more resources and cost more to manufacture and transport than plastic.

The industry has successfully fought attempts to enact statewide bans in California and Oregon.

This was Seattle’s second try at regulating disposable bags. A 2008 measure mandated a 20-cent fee for paper and plastic bags and directed much of the money back to the city for education and recycling programs. But the plastics industry paid signature gatherers to place a referendum on the August 2009 primary ballot, and voters rejected the measure.

Seattle’s new ordinance, modeled on the one adopted by Bellingham, still allows plastic bags for produce, bulk foods and meat. It also allows them for takeout food from restaurants and for patrons of food banks and farmers’ markets. Low-income people using their state Basic Food cards will be exempt from the 5-cent fee.

Residents still will be able to buy commercial plastic bags to line garbage cans, pick up dog waste and bag yard debris.

Seattle Public Utilities, which manages solid-waste disposal and recycling for the city, estimates Seattleites use 292 million plastic carryout bags per year and recycle only 13 percent.

Many other U.S. cities have adopted plastic-bag bans, including San Francisco, which approved its ordinance in 2007. Lisa Hann, a former San Francisco resident who recently relocated to Seattle, said there was some initial resentment about being told what to do, but that residents ultimately embraced it as a way to help protect San Francisco Bay.

Department-store chain Nordstrom said that, under the new ordinance, it will have to charge Seattle customers a nickel for the paper shopping bag that previously was free.

Because of similar bans in other cities, the paper bags will be made from 50 percent recycled material beginning in April, company spokeswoman Tara Darrow said.
Nordstrom Rack stores, which now use plastic bags, likely will have to shift to paper, she said.

“Every jurisdiction is a little different,” Darrow said. “It’s complicated for us. We wish there could be one approach.”

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