Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Paper or Plastic?

You may pay 20 cents either way
Some plastic, foam containers would be banned under proposal by mayor, council president


Seattle could trump even the greenest of American cities with fines on foam and taxes on bags -- both paper and plastic, city politicians say.

Seattle would impose a 20-cent-per-bag "green fee" and outlaw foam food containers next year under a proposal announced Wednesday. Aiming to persuade Seattleites to ditch disposable bags, the city hopes to send a free reusable bag to every Seattle household, Mayor Greg Nickels said.

"No other city has done what we're suggesting here," Nickels said. "These actions will take tons of plastic and foam out of our waste stream. ... The best way to handle a ton of waste is not to create it in the first place."

Eventually, Seattle restaurants also would be forbidden from using plastic food containers that can't be recycled or composted, according to rules being developed by Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin.

Some major questions about the policies remain -- from political differences over how to spend the taxes to outstanding technical dilemmas.

If adopted by the council, the fee would apply to disposable bags distributed at grocery, convenience and drug stores. The polystyrene foam ban would force restaurants and stores to find alternative egg cartons, meat trays, plates, "clamshells" and cups.

The foam and bag rules would go into effect Jan. 1. The plastic food container restrictions would be implemented July 2010.

"It's a big symbolic step, but it's also a very concerted step in the right direction," Conlin said.

The grocery bag fees would generate about $10 million a year, according to Seattle Public Utilities. The money would be used to administer and enforce the rules, to buy and promote reusable bags, and to expand recycling, environmental education and waste prevention programs.

But Conlin has another idea: He would like some of that money to go to garbage rate reductions. The difference will be resolved politically, after Seattle utility and legal officials draft the legislation and present it to the council. That is expected to happen next month.

Seattle consumers use 360 million disposable bags each year, according to Seattle Public Utilities. About 73 percent of them come from grocery, drug and convenience stores, Nickels said. Most are plastic, and most wind up in landfills.

But paper bags are even worse for the environment, once you factor in the tolls of logging and shipping the bags, officials said. That is why the fee would apply to both, they said.

San Francisco prohibited supermarkets from using plastic bags in December. City leaders there gave out several thousand free reusable bags made of scrap cloth, officials said.

Seattle, too, has been handing out free reusable bags in recent months. The more than 5,000 bags the city bought are made of polypropylene, not recycled materials or the especially environmentally friendly cotton canvas, officials said. But they are recyclable and cost considerably less than some alternatives.

"Our decision was (based on) getting as many into the hands of people as we could," said Alex Fryer, spokesman for the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment.

Seattle officials considered banning disposable bags outright, Conlin said. "The problem with a ban is that all it does is leave people without a choice," he said.

Many agree an across-the-board fee is a better approach. Ireland imposed a fee on plastic bags in 2002. Since then, plastic bag use has dropped 90 percent, Seattle officials said.

"If you're trying to reduce bags, that's the way to go," said Mark Westlund, spokesman for the San Francisco environmental department. San Francisco officials considered a surcharge, but California law prohibits such fees, he said.

A lobbyist for Washington retailers said he would withhold judgment on the plan until he had a chance to run it by members of his group.

"If the consumer says, 'I'm not excited about paying 20 cents per bag when I go shopping,' that is probably going to be an issue for us," said Mark Johnson, vice president of government affairs for the Washington Retail Association. "If they're saying, 'No big deal,' it might not be an issue."

Some grocers already promote the use of reusable bags. For example, Thriftway gives a nickel back to customers who bring their own bags.

"I don't know if consumers know how much plastic and paper bags cost," said Josh Angle, store director of the Magnolia Thriftway. Paper bags cost at least 13 cents each, plastic bags cost about 9 cents.

At the PCC store near Green Lake Wednesday, the idea of answering the question of "paper or plastic?" with "cloth" seemed entirely Seattle to Wendy Asbury. Asbury switched to cloth bags when she moved here eight months ago, she said.

"I'm from the Southwest, where everything is about gluttony and waste," she said. "That's what I loved about moving here; everything is so 'green.' "

But there were opponents, too, and the proposal set off a debate between friends in the PCC parking lot.

Jenn Young said encouraging people to use cloth seemed less onerous than penalizing them with the fee.

"I disagree," responded Naomi Fujinaka. "I've been bringing my cloth bag for 25 years."

Young said: "It might be hard on families. If you have a family of six with four kids, and you go shopping once a week and you have 10 grocery bags, that can get to be a lot of money."

"Then you'll know to bring your bag next time," Fujinaka said. "We really have to change our behavior."

For every 20-cent bag fee collected by Seattle, most stores would be allowed to keep 5 cents to cover administrative costs and taxes. (The fee itself would be subject to the state sales tax.) Small stores -- those collecting less than $1 million in gross revenues each year -- would be allowed to keep the entire 20 cents.

Grocers would be required to explicitly list the fee on receipts.

More than 20 cities have banned polystyrene foam packaging at restaurants and other business, including Portland, Ore. After more than 20 years of foam-free fast food services, Portlanders are accustomed to the eco-friendlier alternatives, said Cynthia Fuhrman of the Portland Office of Sustainable Development.

"I think it's just a given -- people have just accepted it," Fuhrman said.



PROPOSED: A 20-cent green fee on disposable shopping bags, both paper and plastic.

WHERE: Grocery, drug and convenience stores.

WHEN: To begin Jan. 1.

EXEMPT: Bags used inside stores to contain bulk items, bags for prepared food, newspaper and dry-cleaner bags.

WHY: Seattleites use 360 million disposable paper and plastic shopping bags every year. Almost 240 million end up in the garbage. That's close to 4 percent of all residential garbage, by volume. This will save 4,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year, the same as taking 665 cars off the road.


PROPOSED: A ban on the use of expanded polystyrene (sometimes called Styrofoam) containers and cups.

WHERE: All food service businesses, including some of the foam packaging used in grocery stores, such as meat trays and egg cartons.

WHEN: To begin Jan. 1.


PROPOSED: Switch from one-time-use, disposable plastic and plastic-coated paper food and beverage containers and utensils to fully compostable and recyclable substitutes.

WHERE: All food service businesses.

WHEN: By July 1, 2010.

P-I reporters Andrea James, Kery Murakami and Lisa Stiffler contributed to this report. P-I reporter Angela Galloway can be reached at 206-448-8333 or angelagalloway@seattlepi.com. Follow politics on the P-I's blog at blog.seattlepi.com/seattlepolitics.

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