On Monday, December 19, the Council unanimously approved an ordinance that bans plastic bags at retail checkout stands and requires retail establishments to collect a pass-through charge from customers requesting paper carryout bags. The legislation is modeled after ordinances successfully adopted by the Cities of Edmonds and Bellingham, and was sponsored and championed by Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
This ordinance is a significant implementation step for the Zero Waste Initiative, which I sponsored and which was approved by the Council in 2007. Under the Zero Waste Initiative, the City for the first time made a commitment to not just increase recycling, but to actually reduce the waste that the City ships by train to a landfill in Arlington, Oregon. As a result of the successful implementation of an array of programs, most notably home organics collection and increased recycling of construction and demolition waste, Seattle has actually reduced its solid waste disposal by more than 20% over the last three years, from 438,000 tons to 352,000 tons.
Banning disposable products where there is a readily available substitute is one of the strategic directions set by the Zero Waste Initiative. The Council implemented the first of these in 2008, banning Styrofoam containers and requiring that restaurants and takeout food services use only biodegradable or recyclable containers, plates, and utensils. The Council worked with the restaurant industry to exempt certain products where the substitutes did not work well (such as biodegradable spoons, which tended to biodegrade in hot soups…). However, other than that, the bans have been fully implemented, and have successfully diverted large quantities of waste.
In August, 2008, the Council adopted an ordinance regulating carry-out bags in an effort to increase the use of reusable bags. Rather than banning the products, that ordinance required grocers to charge 20 cents for each plastic and paper bag given to a customer. It was a sophisticated attempt to use market forces to address the environmental issues with both plastic and paper. Unfortunately, the complexity of the ordinance made it easy for the plastics industry to pick it apart, and they spent $1.4 million collecting signatures on a referendum and successfully campaigning to get the ordinance repealed.
It is our hope that this new and simpler ordinance will be easier to understand and will go into effect. Studies have clearly demonstrated that the production, use and disposal of plastic carryout bags have significant adverse impacts on the environment. Plastic carryout bags are made of nonrenewable resources. Plastic never biodegrades and only breaks down into smaller and smaller particles which seep into soils or are carried into rivers and lakes, Puget Sound and the world’s oceans posing a threat to animal life and the natural food chain. Single-use paper carryout bags are made from renewable resources and are less of a litter problem than single-use plastic carryout bags, but nevertheless require significant resources to manufacture, transport and recycle or dispose of.
Under the new ordinance, retail establishment are prohibited from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, and are required to collect a pass-through charge of not less than five-cents for each recyclable paper carryout bag provided to customers. There are exemptions for people receiving food assistance and for food banks. Smaller bags and bags used inside the stores to package bulk items are exempt.
Those ‘free’ bags that are provided at checkout counters are not free, of course. The cost of those bags are included in every item that a customer purchases. Reusable bags are readily available as a substitute for disposable bags, and a ban on plastic bags and a modest charge for paper bags (which goes to the store, not the City) will fairly allocate costs and environmental responsibilities. This simple and effective step towards waste reduction will make a difference to marine life and to Seattle’s solid waste disposal costs. It is a win-win for consumers, stores, and the environment.