Seattle Voters Reject Fees on Grocery Bags

Published November 1, 2009

Shoppers in Seattle will not have to pay a 20 cent fee for each plastic or paper shopping bag they use, as city voters overwhelmingly voted against a proposal for the fee.

Resounding Defeat

Seattle voters have a reputation for being among the nation’s most environmentally conscious, but even they turned down the proposal championed by environmental activist groups. The proposed fee was defeated by a 58 to 42 percent vote.

“The problem in Seattle is the [city] government has followed so many eco-fads, even the people of Seattle who like to do about everything they think is green have grown tired of it all,” said Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center. “Well over 50 percent [of the voters] decided they were tired of this silly proposal.”

City government officials passed an ordinance in July 2008 to impose the bag fee, due to go into effect this coming January. The goal of the fee was to compel consumers to use reusable bags they bring to the stores, instead of the plastic or paper ones distributed by the stores. Environmentalists say the latter contribute to climate change.

Voters, however, still had to give their stamp of approval and pass a referendum implementing the fee, which they refused to do.

“In this particular case, voters in Seattle were angry,” said Scott St. Clair, a journalist with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation who tracked the issue. “Traditionally, they have been very willing to tax themselves on just about every environmental issue that came down the pike. But they just ousted the incumbent mayor, they were in a foul mood, and the bag tax got caught up in that.”

Activists to Persist

St. Clair, however, does not expect the resounding defeat of Referendum 1 to put an end to activists’ efforts to impose grocery bag fees in Seattle and elsewhere.

“I don’t see this going away at all,” St. Clair said. “This was just an issue in Seattle that came up the wrong way at the wrong time. … It was brought to voters in a heavy-handed way. But I think it will come up again.”

“I think this will continue to be around for a while,” Myers agreed. “The groups who supported this will try to find another way to get it through.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) is a 2008-09 journalism fellow with The Phillips Foundation.