Industry group fighting Seattle plastic-bag tax

American Chemistry Council spent $180,625 in August fighting a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic shopping bags.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson/FILE
Isaiah McDaniel bags groceries into a customer's cloth bags at PCC Natural Market in Seattle. In July, the city council enacted a 20-cent tax on plastic shopping bags, a measure that is being challenged by an industry group.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported last week that the American Chemistry Council spent $180,625 in August fighting a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic shopping bags.

The "green fee," which also imposes a tax on Styrofoam containers, was approved by Seattle's city council in July and is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2009. But the ACC, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group that mainly represents plastics and chlorine manufacturers, has been trying to have the issue put to a citywide referendum. To that end, the the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, which consists of the ACC and 7-Eleven, Inc., has collected about 22,000 signatures to get the referendum on the ballot. (That works out to about $8 per signature, notes the P-I.)

If the coalition's efforts are successful – and the Seattle Times reports that it looks like they will be – then the ordinance will be held off until the voters decide to accept or repeal it. The earliest it would go on the ballot is August 2009.

Some Seattleites are confused by the campaign. In a separate article, the P-I quotes one signatory – a shopper who brings her own bags to the supermarket – who thought she was signing a petition to outlaw plastic bags.

The coalition argues that a 20-cent bag fee would cost consumers $300 each year. This figure seems high. First, it assumes that the tax wouldn't be at all effective in dissuading shoppers from using the bags, which is the point of the ordinance. Second, $300 assumes 1,500 bags per year, or almost 29 per week. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that Americans throw away some 100 billion bags per year, which works out to about 6 or 7 bags per American per week.

The site also asserts that Seattle found that 91 percent of its residents "reuse or recycle" plastic shopping bags. While this may very well be true – I'll bet that most of us line our wastebaskets with the things – this is not the same thing as a 91 percent recycling rate. In fact, according to Worldwatch, only 0.6 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

The coalition says that in Ireland, which enacted a fee for plastic bags in March 2002, "consumers ended up purchasing heavier plastic bags to replace the shopping bags they previously reused around their homes. Today in Ireland, they use

even more
a report from a British plastics trade groupthe Irish population grew by more than eight percent

Seattle is just the latest front in the ACC's battle against laws that seek to reduce plastic-bag consumption. In March 2007, San Francisco became the first US city to ban the bags, a decision condemned by the ACC, which argued that the ban would harm plastic-bag-recycling efforts. The ACC used the same argument in opposing anti-plastic-bag measures on Maui and Hawaii's Big Island and in Malibu, Fla., which passed, and again when in opposing an act in California's state legislature, which didn't.

The ACC also often argues that making a plastic shopping bag uses only about 70 percent of the energy required to produce a paper bag that carries the same amount. But the group isn't using this argument in Seattle, because the city seeks to tax both paper and plastic.

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