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Plastic bag ban back on Seattle council's agenda

The city of Seattle would like this to never again be a view for Seattle and the region.
Gwen Harlow
The city of Seattle would like this to never again be a view for Seattle and the region.

"Paper or plastic?"

Seattle wants to take that choice away in order to save the environment and money. The city council is considering a ban on single-use plastic bags, because they are harmful to marine wildlife as well as to recycling machinery.

Under the new city law, grocers would have to get rid of those thin plastic bags that are doled out at most check-out stands and they would be required to charge a five-cent fee for any paper bags used at checkout. However, if the buyer is paying with a food assistance card, that cost would not be passed on.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, chair of Seattle’s regional development and sustainability committee, says the 5-cent fee is a modest monetary reminder for people to bring a re-usable bag to the store.

“You know, when UW researchers say every single sample of water they’ve taken from Puget Sound in the last year and a half contains plastic in it, and also, you know families at home, especially mothers of new borns … all of a sudden, you know, are figuring out how to get plastic out of their lives ... there’s a lot of concern out there,” O'Brien says.

He says the proposal is designed to be in line with what most Seattlites want – to protect the health of Puget Sound and the marine life that comes through it. 

The costs

"We all remember the beached grey whale found dead in West Seattle last year with 20 plastic bags in its stomach," O'Brian said in a press release. "The problem plastics pose for teh Sound and ocean is pervasive and alarming."

Just as disposable plastic bags can tear up the inside of a sea creature and birds, they also get caught up in the machinery at recycling plants and break equipment. And unlike paper bags, they can’t be composted.

Video: "Struggling with its immortality, a discarded plastic bag (voiced by Werner Herzog) ventures through the environmentally barren remains of America as it searches for its maker."

The political battle

If this sounds like dejavu – you’re right.  Three years ago, Seattle voters passed a plastic bag ban and then repealed it, because of the cost to consumers and grocery chains.

Bellingham, Edmonds and Portland have forged ahead. Now, Seattle is re-considering a ban modeled after the one in Bellingham, where single-use plastic bags are outlawed and paper ones cost 5 cents. 

The fee is kept by the grocery stores. It's what's known as a "pass-through" fee, and boosters insist it is not a tax but rather a reimbursement to cover the cost of implementation. 

According to the Seattle Times, The American Chemistry Council spent $1.4 million to defeat Seattle's plastic bag fee in 2008.

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Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to