Banning plastic bags will increase costs for both grocery stores and their customers, opponents say. Plastic isn't polluting our waterways! Recycling programs can handle all 292 million plastic bags Seattleites discard each year!
These talking points are all oversimplified—or just plain wrong*—but get used to hearing them as well-heeled opponents attempt to sack yet another proposed citywide ban on plastic bags.
On November 21, the Seattle City Council introduced a bill that would prohibit single-use plastic bags; shoppers would be charged a 5-cent fee for paper bags as an incentive to bring their own, while stores would be allowed to keep the fee as a disincentive to opposing the ordinance. Sponsored by Council Member Mike O'Brien and six cosponsors, the bill is almost certain to pass. But it will also likely attract another pricey campaign from the plastic industry, just like the referendum that overturned Seattle's 2009 bag-tax ordinance.
O'Brien says this is "a smarter solution" and "completely different" from the failed 2009 measure, and he hopes the nickel kickback will woo grocers to support the ban as it did for a similar measure in Bellingham last year. But Washington Food Industry Association president Jan Gee, who represents 480 independent grocery businesses, says her organization opposes bans and plans to lobby the council.
Plastic bags are "not bad for the environment" if they are disposed of properly, insists Gee, but banning them is expensive: "Consumers have to understand that when special-interest groups like environmentalists want a special request on a business, it does inflate the cost for customers." Gee says that paper bags can cost more than 5 cents, while the switch to paper would require expensive remodels to checkout stands and storage areas.
But Gee isn't the real opposition. The American Chemistry Council, a coalition of plastic-bag manufacturers, broke a city election record for campaign fundraising in 2009 when it contributed $1.4 million to overturn a 5-cent fee on all shopping bags.
Their rallying cry this time? Recycling is fine.
"Encouraging consumers to reduce, reuse, and recycle doesn't require a new layer of government bureaucracy or increase grocery costs for struggling families," Shari Jackson, spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, said in response to the council's latest bill. The plastic lobby has aggressively opposed bag bans nationwide, and it usually wins.
As for Seattle, Peter Nickerson, who teaches economics at New York University, opposed the 2009 measure but concedes that it was overturned by fewer than 9,000 votes. "I do think a bag ban could survive a referendum," says Nickerson, "but I think it would have to be an organized defense."
And judging from past history, it will also have to be well funded.
* Uh, there's really no question that plastic is fouling Puget Sound. Julie Masura, a research affiliate at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Waters, says, "Every sample I have brought back to the lab has contained micro plastic." And there's no question that plastic-bag recycling is minimal: According to a report this month from the Environment Washington Research & Policy Center, only 13 percent of Seattle's plastic bags are recycled. As for the argument that it raises costs: The nickel kickback provision in the latest bill may be enough to cover grocers' costs—or maybe not. The question for shoppers is, given the plastic in the waters, is a small cost worth it?