Seattle nixes plastic bag tax

Thomas Sustak, with the Clean Air Council, plays the part of the "bag monster" to illustrate how many bags an average consumer uses in a year as other protest during a hearing on plastic bags at City Council in May. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

Philadelphia council members who have long been pushing for a way to limit plastic bag use — and, by extension, plastic bag litter — may want to take note of what’s been happening in Seattle.

Yesterday in a referendum, voters overwhelmingly nixed a 25-cent fee for each bag used.

In May, Philadelphia had proposed the same thing, but the measure was withdrawn from consideration. The full story is here.

The environmental commmittee came back at the issue in June, proposing an all-out ban, but council voted it down. That report is here. Councilmen James Kenney and Frank DiCicco have pledged not to give up on trying to limit plastic bag use.

Here’s the report on yesterday’s Seattle referendum from Associated Press writer Phuong Le:

Seattle voters’ rejection of a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper bags represents a sound defeat for other efforts in U.S. cities to limit the use of the throwaway bags, plastics industry officials said Wednesday.

A referendum on an ordinance to charge the bag fee at grocery, drug and convenience stores was easily defeated in Tuesday’s primary in this liberal city — whose voters are known for taxing themselves to pay for parks, libraries, affordable housing and other causes.

“If they can’t do it there, they can’t do anywhere,” said Stephen Joseph, a San Francisco attorney with, who has challenged several plastic bag bans in California.

The ordinance approved by city leaders was to start in January, but the plastics industry bankrolled a referendum to put the question to voters.

The Progressive Bag Affiliates, an arm of the American Chemistry Council, spent $1.4 million to overturn the ordinance, the largest contribution to a local ballot measure in recent history. Supporters raised about $93,000.
Heather Trim, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Green Bag campaign, said other cities will surely look to Seattle’s outcome for cues on how to proceed.

“They’re going to think twice because they know that the ACC is willing to spend as much as needed to defeat it,” said Trim, toxics program manager for People for Puget Sound.

But communities and citizens will also become better aware of the industry’s influence and arm themselves appropriately, she said.

Supporters argued the fee would encourage more reusable bags, cut down on pollution and waste, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The ubiquitous thin, cheap plastic bags have been blamed for littering streets, polluting oceans and harming marine life. The city’s ordinance targeted both paper and plastic sacks after city officials determined that paper bags were worse for the environment.

Adam Parmer, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, said Seattle voters rejected the bag fee because it was unnecessary, costly and the wrong approach to changing behavior.

Supporters here are now considering an outright ban, Brady Montz, Seattle chairman for the Sierra Club and a spokesman for the pro-fee group, said Wednesday. He noted that San Francisco considered a fee before becoming the first city in the nation to ban plastic bags in 2007.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, an Oakland, Calif., said many cities haven’t been deterred by aggressive lobbying by plastic bag makers.

“Even if a proposal like this fails, the problem continues to grow,” Lewis said. “That’s why I think, ultimately, the efforts to restrict and reduce bag use will be successful.”