COLUMNIST: Bagless in Seattle? Bag tax is bad idea

On Aug. 18, Seattle voters will decide whether to reject a new fee aimed at reducing the use of paper and plastic bags.

On Aug. 18, Seattle voters will decide whether to reject a new fee aimed at reducing the use of paper and plastic bags.

Referendum 1 would let voters have their say on an ordinance passed last year by the Seattle City Council.

The measure would impose a 20-cent fee for each disposable paper and plastic bag dispensed at drug stores, grocery stores and convenience stores.

Shopping bags from department stores are exempt, as are bags from “big box” warehouse stores.

Historically, Seattleites have willingly – even enthusiastically – taxed themselves to support various public programs. As one Seattle woman said, “I never met a tax I didn’t like.”

Seattle residents pride themselves on being “green.” The city is among the top 20 cities in the nation for recycling, with a mandatory recycling program for cans, bottles and paper. But like everyone in the nation, people in Seattle are struggling with our tough economy, and the bag tax is by no means — excuse the pun — in the bag. In fact, recent polls show that a majority of Seattleites oppose the bag tax.

Seattle Public Utilities estimates that roughly 360 million disposable bags are used each year in Seattle – more than 70 percent of them at grocery, convenience and drug stores. City research estimates the ordinance could cut that number in half.

Proponents say the fee will slash landfill waste, curb air pollution, reduce littering and cut energy usage to produce paper and plastic bags. Opponents say Seattle is already a leader in recycling, and this is not the time to burden families with yet another tax.

Seattle would net around $10 million a year for the city’s utility department, but opponents say the city would spend $1.4 million a year just to run the program.

According to the original ordinance, the utility department will hire inspectors to randomly check compliance and follow up on complaints. Store owners could be fined $250 for failing to impose the fee. The plan also calls for hiring a full-time tax auditor and an administrative specialist to oversee collecting the fees.

The bag tax is intended to save energy and reduce landfill waste, but a study by the Washington Policy Council casts doubt on that goal. According to WPC, the bag tax would reduce Seattle’s garbage by only .0014 percent per year.

Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, says surveys show 91 percent of city residents already reuse and recycle plastic bags.

The city plans to provide each Seattle household with a reusable shopping bag, but economics professor and Seattle resident Peter Nickerson estimates that, because those bags require considerable energy to produce, they would have to be reused 300 times to offset the resources that go into making them.

Others are concerned about the fee’s impact on the state’s already troubled forest products industry. State Rep. Dean Takko, a Democrat whose district includes Longview Fibre, which manufactures paper bags, opposes the tax. “We are a forest products state,” says Takko, “and we should not be discouraging the use of forest products made in our state.”

Food retailers prefer a voluntary approach that stresses education and choice. Many grocers already offer price incentives for using reusable bags.

The Washington Food Industry says those incentives, coupled with accessible recycling facilities and a sustainable-shopping education effort, could significantly reduce the number of disposable bags requested by shoppers.

Before the City of Seattle imposes yet another tax on its already overburdened citizens, city leaders should work with retailers to expand current voluntary efforts to encourage reusable shopping bags.

Seattleites have a proud record of enthusiastically supporting “green” programs and would gladly do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Seattle bag tax is a bad idea.

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