As the city of Seattle considers a ban on plastic bags, a plastic bag maker plans to push a statewide recycling program as a better alternative

to an outright prohibition on the thin, disposable bags at retail and grocery stores.

At the same time, a Washington state lawmaker says he is considering a measure next year that would either ban plastic bags statewide or create a uniform ordinance that cities could use if they choose to restrict them.

Plastic bags have been blamed for littering streets, fouling oceans and harming marine life. Each year Seattleites carry off about 292 million single-use plastic bags, and 68 million paper bags. About 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent are recycled.

Numerous municipalities across the country — including Eugene, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Jackson, Wyo. — are also considering laws to restrict the use of plastic bags.

Seattle’s proposal would ban plastic bags from grocers, retailers and department stores and charge customers 5 cents for each paper bag as a way to encourage reusable bags. Low-income residents would be exempt from the 5-cent fee. Retailers would keep the nickel to help defray costs of paper bags.

It’s the council’s second attempt to restrict the use of plastic bags to protect Puget Sound. The council was scheduled to hear public comments Monday night, and a vote by the full council could take place as early as Dec. 19.

In 2008, the council voted to charge a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags, only to have the measure overturned by voters in a referendum bankrolled by the plastics industry the following year. The plastics industry spent $1.4 million on that referendum.

“I feel real optimistic that we found a solution that really works for our environment waste-reduction goals and does so in a way that has business support,” said councilmember Mike O’Brien, the bill’s prime sponsor.

O’Brien, who wasn’t in office when the bag fee was passed, said he was mindful of the referendum when crafting new legislation. He heard from residents that the 20-cent fee passed in 2008 felt too punitive, and learned that 5-cent fees instituted in places like Washington, D.C., helped change behavior, O’Brien said.

The Seattle measure has strong support, with seven of nine councilmembers signed on as sponsors. If passed, it would go into effect in July.

The Northwest Grocery Association, which represents QFC, Safeway and Fred Meyer stores in the state, supports the Seattle proposed bag ban, though the group representing independent grocers in the state doesn’t. Similar measures in other communities have been backed by other grocers groups.

Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, told the Seattle Times the plastic industry hasn’t come up with a solution for the litter problem, and that the current proposal was the best model he has seen.

Hilex Poly Co., the country’s largest plastic bag manufacturer, has said the Seattle ban is misguided. In a letter to the City Council last month, company vice president Mark Daniels said he expects the ban to be approved but added that “punishing consumers is the wrong approach to reducing plastics litter.”

“We will work with the recycling industry and policy makers on a statewide recycling solution for Washington that not only addresses plastic check-out bags, but all plastic films and wraps that end up in landfills and on our streets,” Daniels wrote.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, said he was considering a bill that would provide a more statewide approach to the issue.

“We know that plastic bags have a severe impact on our marine ecosystems. I don’t think that having every city come up with their own policies would be very business friendly,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the way that we can have a more simple statewide approach.”

The American Chemistry Council sent a letter to the city council Monday saying the ban wasn’t a practical approach and that the ban would prohibit plastic bags in favor of paper bags. It noted that the city’s own studies show that paper bags are worse for the environment.

“Encouraging consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle doesn’t require a new layer of government bureaucracy or increase grocery costs for struggling families,” said Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates, an arm of the American Chemistry Council.

Robb Krehbiel has been working with communities to restrict plastic bags for Environment Washington. “While there are environmental impacts to paper bags, if you look at the lifespan of plastic bags, there’s no comparison,” he said. “It’ll threaten wildlife for years to come.”

Measures to ban plastic bags statewide have failed to gain traction in the state Legislature in previous sessions.


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