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Originally published Wednesday, July 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

We don't need the bag police

"Just step away from the shopping cart, ma'am. Real easy, like, and there won't be any trouble. " "What's the problem, sir? " "Let's see ...

Seattle Times staff columnist

"Just step away from the shopping cart, ma'am. Real easy, like, and there won't be any trouble."

"What's the problem, sir?"

"Let's see — you have cloth bags ... an old Ikea bag ... looks fine ... Wait! What's this under here? It's a plastic bag, isn't it?"

"Oh, sorry. I left my other totes at home. But I did pay the twenty-cent Green Fee. See? Here on my receipt?"

"OK, all's in order this time. For planet's sake, though — carry a proper supply of reusable bags. Remember: The health of Puget Sound is in the bag!"

"Whoa, Mom. Who was that?"

"A Green Fee Inspector, son. Work hard on your recycling lessons and maybe you can be one when you grow up."

This dramatization — OK, exaggeration — is brought to you courtesy of the fine print in Seattle's "Green Fee" law. That's the proposal to put a 20-cent-per-bag fee on disposable plastic and paper bags.

It's well-meaning. We chuck too much plastic.

But did you know that to get you to stop using the bags, the city plans to create a mini-bureaucracy, including the deployment of bag police?

"Seattle Public Utilities will hire inspectors who both randomly and on a complaint basis will check stores and restaurants for compliance," says the plan from Mayor Greg Nickels.

Part of what they will be checking is whether stores look the other way when a customer with no spare change is truly jonesing for a disposable bag.

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"It shall be a violation ... for any store to pay or otherwise reimburse a customer for any portion of the Green Fee," reads the proposed ordinance.

Punishment is a $250 fine (for the store owner, presumably). That's the same ticket you get if you do "unlawful dumping of solid waste."

The plan also calls for hiring a full-time tax auditor and an administrative specialist, to oversee collecting the fees.

Now some of you may be saying: Yes, bag police sound absurd. But pass a new law and you've got to enforce it. Otherwise, what's the point?

It's true some places go after bag scofflaws with such vengeance it makes us look like some sort of plastic sanctuary city by comparison.

In China you can lose your business license if you're caught doling out plastic bags. In South Africa, you can be jailed for up to 10 years.

Still, those two are hardly models to aspire to. How about Australia, instead?

There the government and the grocery association hatched a deal to get rid of plastic bags — voluntarily. According to a report for Seattle by Herrera Consultants, 90 percent of big Aussie retailers signed up — in part because if they didn't, the government threatened a more top-down program. Much like the one we're about to do here.

Don't you think do-gooder Seattle could reduce its bag usage without inspectors? Tax auditors? A small, but new, layer of bureaucracy?

That's what you suggested, in a poll the city did last winter. By 67 to 32 percent, people said "no fees on bags." By 87 to 11 percent, you said "try having stores do this voluntarily."

The city says no, its fee plan is the greenest. Maybe so. But it's also one where the only thing that's growing is itself.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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