Lenny Rose has been talking to customers at the two Red Apple stores he owns in Seattle’s Central Area as groceries are piled into their bags.
Do they know that the city wants to get rid of plastic and paper bags? That in a few months they will likely be charged 20 cents for each bag? That it might add an extra $2 or $4 to their grocery bill?
“We are talking about putting a tax on people, and most of them don’t know it’s coming,” Rose said. “It is going to be a huge education process, and it is going to cause a lot of grief.”
But such concerns didn’t discourage Seattle city officials, who moved a step closer Tuesday toward becoming one of the few major American cities to discourage paper and plastic bags in favor of reusable bags, and to ban polystyrene food and drink containers.
The full City Council is expected to vote on the proposals Monday that were passed Tuesday by a committee. If adopted, the new legislation will launch a 90-day campaign to educate residents and shoppers before the 20-cent per bag fee goes into effect on Jan. 1.
The ban on plastic foam food take-out containers and cups also will take effect that day, if approved. However, a ban on plastic meat trays will be delayed for a year, allowing stores time to figure out alternatives.
“It was a lot of work getting here,’ said Council President Richard Conlin, chairman of the Environment Committee.
The 20-cent fee would be charged at grocery, drug and convenience stores.
The city will collect 15 cents from each plastic and paper bag sale to be used for waste prevention, recycling, city cleanup and environmental education programs.
Seattle’s measure would be more lenient than some. The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ban plastic shopping bags from stores, beginning July 1, 2010. Shoppers can either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper bag.
Still, the Washington Food Industry is so concerned about the Seattle plan that it presented a proposal last week under which its grocers would pay customers to reduce bag use as an alternative to collecting the city’s tax.
Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association, said the 20-cent fee on plastic bags is unfair to check stand clerks, putting them in the position of negotiating with customers about the number of sacks needed to bag their groceries.
“I’m in support of the city’s concept and want to make sure it works for our customers and our clerks,” Gilliam said.
“The city of Seattle simply said ‘tax them,’ rather than counting on the intelligence and willingness of Seattle citizens to do the right thing,” said Jan Gee, president of the Washington Food Industry.
While there might be a learning curve for shoppers trying to remember to bring cloth bags to the stores or stocking up on enough reusable bags for big weekly shopping trips, it was the potential impact on low-income people and the elderly that the council’s Environment Committee focused on Tuesday.
Free bags could be available at checkout stands for low-income people who don’t have enough reusable bags. The council also is considering ways to reduce the cost to food banks, which rely on plastic bags for their clients.
Claire Acey, a spokeswoman for Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank, which served a record-setting 2,145 clients Monday, said it spends about $16,000 a year on plastic bags for its clients. It supports the move toward reusable bags.
“Like everyone else, we have used plastic bags for years. Now we are asking people to donate cloth bags so we can pass those out instead,” said Acey. “We go through a lot of bags.”
The move to reduce plastic and paper bags and plastic take-out containers is part of an ongoing city effort to reduce the amount of garbage that goes to landfills.
Members of BYOB (Bring your Own Bag), supporters of the reusable bag effort, said it will take practice for consumers to remember to bring their own bags, but it will soon be habit.
Liz Tatchell said she puts her smaller bags into a bigger bag. Cloth bags are sturdier and easier to carry, she said. Others stow bags in their car trunks.
Part of the city’s public education program will include ways to keep reusable bags clean and prevent meat juices from leaking.
Only Conlin and Councilman Tim Burgess attended the Environment Committee meeting Tuesday. But Heather Trim, with People for Puget Sound, said she thinks there is enough support on the full council to pass the legislation Monday.
Trim said other cities around the region are taking interest in Seattle’s bag and plastic legislation, including in the San Juan Islands, Port Townsend, Shoreline and Olympia.
“It’s good news for the health of the Puget Sound,” she said.