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Seattle Proposes 'Green Fee' on Shopping Bags, Foam Packaging Ban

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels and city council president Richard Conlin yesterday proposed a 20-cent "green fee" on all disposable shopping bags at the city's grocery, drug, and convenience stores, as well as a ban on foam containers used in the food service industry.

The proposal, which, if adopted, would take effect Jan. 1, 2009, follows the recent release of a city-sponsored report that found both paper and plastic packaging materials are harmful to the environment. The government officials said the bag fee and foam ban would cut down on waste, reduce the use of environmentally harmful plastics, and cut the production of greenhouse gases.

"The answer to the question 'paper or plastic' is neither; both harm the environment," said Nickels. "This proposal is all about forming new habits. Taking a reusable bag to grocery stores and pharmacies is a simple thing that has an enormous impact."

Conlin added: "We are turning Seattleites' environmental values into tangible actions. This combination of environmental and economic stewardship will help ensure a truly sustainable city."

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) estimates 360 million disposable bags are used in the city every year, most made of plastic. Almost 75 percent of these come from the city's 575 grocery, drug, and convenience stores (out of a total 3,600 retail and restaurant businesses).

The green fee is intended to encourage and promote the use of reusable shopping bags. The city will set aside $1 million to distribute these bags and promote their advantages. Retailers will keep 5-cents of every bag to cover administrative costs. Smaller chains - those grossing less than $1 million annually -- will keep the entire 20-cent fee.

Seattle-based natural and organic foods retailer PCC Natural Markets voiced its support of the proposal. "Most people can understand that disposable shopping bags - whether paper or plastic - are not free for us as a business nor are they free to us as a society," said PCC c.e.o. Tracy Wolpert. "Their very manufacture consumes resources and creates toxic pollutants that are unhealthy for people and the environment as a whole. Seattle's proposed policy reflects the growing awareness about the impacts of single-use bags and will help to enable shoppers to act on their good intentions."

PCC had eliminated plastic shopping bags from its eight stores in October 2007 and reduced the price on reusable totes - selling them at cost - to encourage shoppers to shift to reusable totes for shopping. PCC also launched a "Think Reuse" campaign.

Charging a fee for disposable bags will cut the number of throw-away bags coming out of grocery, drug and convenience stores by an estimated 70 percent or more, according to the city's analysis; and will reduce the use of disposable shopping bags in Seattle overall by more than 50 percent.

By preventing the manufacture of 184 million bags a year, Seattle estimates it will cut greenhouse gas production by nearly 112,000 tons over a 30-year period. A similar fee in Ireland achieved a 90 percent reduction in use from 325 to 23 bags per person per year.

The proposed ban on foam containers used by the food service industry would include such items as plates, trays, "clamshells" and hot and cold beverage cups used at restaurants, delicatessens, fast food outlets, and coffee shops, and meat trays and egg cartons used at grocery stores. The legislation would also require that by July 1, 2010, all food service businesses currently using disposable plastic or plastic-coated paper products to convert to packaging that is compostable or locally recyclable.

To smooth the transition, the city will set up business advisory committees representing the retail and restaurant sectors. In addition, the city will help food service businesses work together for lower prices on new compostable products.

SPU expects to collect about $10 million annually from the green fee. Of this, about $2 million will be spent to promote the switch to reusable bags, including the distribution of free bags to low income families and those on fixed incomes. The rest of the money, approximately $8 million, will go toward waste prevention and recycling programs and environmental education programs.
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