Seattle Voters Sack Bag Fee

Published October 27, 2009

The Emerald City may have lost a bit of its green reputation but increased its fiscal soundness with Seattle voters’ rejection of a 20 cent fee on disposable paper and plastic bags.

Debated as a matter of helping the environment versus piling on another fee during hard economic times, the measure was defeated with 57 percent voting against it.

In summer 2008 the Seattle City Council voted to impose a 20 cent fee on paper and plastic bags. It would have gone into effect on Jan. 1, 2009, but the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax collected enough voter signatures to put the measure on the August 2009 primary election ballot as Referendum 1.

The ordinance would have required consumers to pay 20 cents for every disposable bag they got from grocery, drug, and convenience stores. Businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenue would have retained the entire 20 cent fee, and others would have kept five cents. The rest was to go to Seattle Public Utilities to pay for program implementation and oversight and to provide free reusable bags to low-income families, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters.

Paper? Plastic? Neither!

“The answer to the question ‘paper or plastic’ has officially become ‘neither’,” said Mayor Greg Nickels after last year’s July 28 City Council vote approving the fee. “The best way to reduce waste is not to create it, and today, we have made that a little easier.”

Most of the subsequent attention focused on the ubiquitous petroleum-based plastic bags commonly used in stores. Bag fee proponents agreed with the intent of the ordinance to dramatically reduce the estimated 360 million plastic bags used each year in Seattle. They argued the fee would encourage more reusable bags, cut down on pollution and waste, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The filmy plastic bags are difficult to recycle and are messy–blowing around streets, snagging in trees, and floating in waterways. Some reports say plastic bags break down in the marine environment and are consumed by marine mammals and fish that people may eat.

“We need to stop the input of plastics into our waters,” said Heather Trim, toxic program manager for People for Puget Sound and a spokeswoman for the Seattle Green Bag campaign. “Plastic waste has nowhere to go but to swirl around the ocean.”

Those in favor of the fee claimed plastic bags are usually used just once before being discarded, and that the fee would have added only a couple of dollars to the weekly grocery bill. Bag critics also pointed out shoppers could avoid the fee by reusing bags from previous trips to the store or employing reusable totes. Many stores offer sturdy bags for customers to use free of charge or at low cost.

$15 Million Fee Hike

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the lobbying arm of the plastics industry, came out against the fee, arguing 90 percent of consumers already reuse their plastic bags. The ACC also said the measure would cost Seattle residents $15 million per year in fees.

Business interests questioned the effectiveness of the proposed fee. Because disposable bags represent a small portion of Seattle’s waste, they argued it would reduce the city’s annual garbage output by just .0014 percent. Bag fee supporters strongly disagreed with that assessment.

Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for the ACC, said in a statement, “Like other cities that have looked at this issue, Seattle has chosen to continue to reuse plastic bags and expand recycling opportunities as the best way to fight litter and protect the environment.”

Local opponents of the ordinance said the city’s voters rejected the bag fee because it was unnecessary, costly, and the wrong way to go in a tough economy.

Bad Timing, Government Meddling

“In the middle of a recession, a tax to change people’s behavior isn’t the right approach,” said Adam Parmer, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax. “That’s the message that was clearly sent.”

“Imposing a new tax during this economic downturn obviously did not sit well with people,” said Amber Gunn, director of the Economic Policy Center at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based public policy think tank. “A properly designed tax system should be used to raise needed revenue for core functions of government, not to influence the lifestyle choices of citizens.”

The anti-bag fee forces won this battle, but the war is far from over.

Continuing Campaign?

“This campaign is about much more than just one decision of the voters,” said Rob Gala, a spokesman for the Seattle Green Bag campaign. “It’s really about raising the awareness of voters, and we’ve really accomplished that.”

It remains to be seen how Seattle’s rejection of the bag fee will affect other efforts in U.S. cities to limit the use of throwaway bags. There is evidence–past and present–to suggest more cities will consider an outright ban on plastic bags.

This summer, Edmonds became the first city in Washington state to ban plastic grocery bags at retail stores. San Francisco was the first major American city to ban plastic grocery bags in 2007. A similar ban goes into effect in Los Angeles next year, but only if California decides not to implement a 25 cent charge on bags.

Brett Davis ([email protected]) is an economic policy analyst with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.