Customers Like the Bag Ban

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It’s only been six months since Seattle banned single-use plastic bags. That’s just six months since some customers were caught unaware and found themselves either walking out of a grocery store juggling a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, and a pound of butter or paying a nickel for a paper carryout bag.

In those six short months, Seattleites have adapted. So much so that, surprisingly, a majority says they like the ban and how it is helping adjust behavior—reducing the plastic bag waste found on our beaches and in Puget Sound. Among four grocery stores surveyed, plastic bag use dropped by almost 15,000 bags per month.

This morning, Seattle Public Utilities (the organization charged with implementing the ban) provided a progress report to the Libraries, Utilities and Center Committee.  The utility’s report showed general acceptance by both customers and store owners, with few of the problems that had been anticipated.

Environment Washington surveyed 858 customers, tailoring queries to reflect local demographics, and found that 94 percent of those asked knew about the bag ban and 64 percent supported it. The survey found the ban was more popular with women than men. It also was more popular with whites than with people of color and scored higher with people aged 21-40 than with older consumers. Another survey finding is that 66 percent of customers said they now bring their own bag most of the time.

One customer, queried at a QFC on 15th, said, “When I see everyone else doing it, it’s easier for me to remember.”

In the SPU study, the ban was found to be more popular with supermarkets than with other businesses. Overall, 61 percent of employees agreed with the ban; but at supermarkets that percentage rose to 78 percent. That seems to tally with the greater impact at supermarkets where 94 percent report an increase in reusable bag usage. In small businesses, especially in stores that previously didn’t offer plastic bags, only 47 percent reported an increase in resusable bags.

The study quoted Tony D’Onofrio, Town and Country’s sustainability coordinator, saying, “The Seattle plastic bag ban ordinance is and has been a great success for Ballard Market. We have seen a stable 60 percent increase in the use of reusuable bags.”

The bag ban was approved by the Seattle City council in December 2011, and went into effect June 2011.  It was the second time the council passed a ban. Three years ago, a somewhat similar ban was passed but was immediately opposed by industry forces, leading to a referendum vote. That bag ban law, which entailed a 25 cents charge per paper bag, most of which went to the city, was rejected by voters.

What made the difference in acceptance by customers this time? It’s thought that the imposition of bans by other cities in the region may have helped. Another factor promoting the bag ban may be that the 25-cent charge was changed to a nickel, a fee that is retained by the store rather than going to the city. The stores use this nickel to cover the costs of administering the ban. The revised ban also exempts food-stamp recipients from having to pay for paper grocery sacks.

The plastic bag ban does still have a few naysayers. Every once in a while I receive grinchy comments from tourists surprised by the ban. And then there are  customers who claim that they drive to other venues where single use bags are still used. However, it does seem a stretch to imagine someone using expensive gas to drive several miles to avoid using reuseable bags or paying a spare nickel for paper.

Ultimately, the ban is achieving the goal of changing consumer behavior around plastic bag use. A nickel is just enough to make people think twice about their bag use. And the fact that the majority of Seattleites like the ban? That’s just the environmentally-oriented Seattle I know and love.