I feel just a little better about democracy today.

Yesterday I listened to a city council member who I voted for say “Anything that we use for a couple of minutes should not stick around for hundreds of years!”

Commissioner Mike O’Brien was a staunch advocate for the original bag bill, which proposed a $.20 fee of which $.15 was devoted to new recycling programs and cleanups by the city of Seattle, and $.5 went to the grocery stores. The bag fee ordinance passed in city council in July 2008 (Ord. 122752), and then failed soundly when it was put to a vote in August of 2009. It’s a good lesson— industry calls the fee (which is collected to pay for the cost to taxpayers to deal with the waste the bag industry generates) a tax, fully aware of the political climate they can exploit to win cynically, appealing to anti-tax activists. And they’ll spend anything they have to on misinformation campaigns. What’s ironic is that the true cost to taxpayers comes at the end of life of a private corporation’s product–  cleanup. And it’s expensive.

At the hearing, I heard from four Seattle city council members, representatives from five different grocery store chains, a small business owner, representatives from environmental groups including Jody Kennedy from Surfrider Foundation, and a number of other community leaders voice their support for a Seattle city bag ban. The proposed ordinance would ban all single-use plastic grocery bags from all stores in the city of Seattle and would place a $.05 fee on paper bags–  that fee is waived for those using food stamps. Stores keep the $.05 for increased cost of paper.  I was impressed by the economic assessments offered by the grocers, both big and small; plastic bags are expensive and wasteful on every level, and if citizens brings their own bags, grocery stores can and will pass those savings to their customers. PCC, a high end grocery store,  eliminated plastic bags four years ago. At that time, ¼ of their shoppers used reusable bags. Now 2/3 do, and the numbers will continue to climb when all other grocery stores follow suit after the bag ban is put into effect in July 2012.

What remains to be seen is whether the American Chemistry Council and plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly can force and defeat a ballot measure again. Hilex Poly consistently touts ‘more recycling’, which will never be a solution because such an absurdly small proportion of plastic bags are recycled– the percentage is so small, no one even accurately can say what it is– but after Hilex Poly sued ChicoBag earlier this year, it came out that Hilex was including all polyethylene in their numbers including films and wraps.  After losing to Chico, they had to revise their numbers on bags, which is probably more in the order of fewer than 1% are recycled. Yikes.

Below is the letter I wrote to the editor of the Seattle Times, which they posted on their opinion blog:

Seattle council may ban plastic bags, Nov. 14, 2011

Dear Seattle Times editors:

The plastic bag ban has my support for both economic and environmental reasons. Plastic bags are difficult and expensive to recycle, they clog machines and sell for less than the labor used to sort and shred them. Plastic bags are made from petroleum, most of which we import from outside of the US. Plastic bags are toxic to marine and terrestrial life, and they kill anything that mistakenly consumes them. The country’s largest manufacturers of plastic bags, the ACC, spent 1.4 million dollars to defeat the bag fee here in seattle in 2008. They didn’t do it because they care about your freedom to put your dog’s poop in one of their bags, they did it because when it comes to plastic bags, they reap the profits and taxpayers pay the price. Tell big plastic to go the way of lead paint, DDT, and asbestos: bring your own bag.

-Abigail McCarthy

Seattle Surfrider Foundation Chapter

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