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Originally published December 20, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified December 21, 2011 at 5:59 AM

Danny Westneat

No need to tear into this bag law

As soon as the Seattle City Council voted Monday to ban plastic grocery bags, the bag industry came out with a campaign to try to undermine it.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Its remarkable how many people want to think they know whats best for you, that their... Read more
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As soon as the Seattle City Council voted Monday to ban plastic grocery bags, the bag industry came out with a campaign to try to undermine it.

Their pitch is a powerful one in politics. It's that your elected leaders arrogantly ignored you.

"In 2009, voters repealed a fee on their grocery bags. But this week, Seattle's city council decided voters made the wrong choice," reads an online petition put up by Hilex Poly, one of the country's largest bag makers.

"Say no to fees, fines and bans on your bags!" the petition reads. "Seattle's city council overrode the will of the people."

Did they? I am a Seattle people. I was a vocal critic of that bloated, overreaching bag law, and was among the 53 percent who voted to repeal it.

So as someone whose democratic will is supposedly being squished beneath the boot heel of big government, I would like to say: It isn't true.

Seattle bagged it exactly right this time around.

The two laws, being conflated as one, are as different as paper and plastic. For starters, this new ordinance is half the length of the one from 2008. That's a big reason why it makes twice as much sense.

That old law was a classic in how government can take the simplest goal and turn it into a Rube Goldberg contraption — one whose end product also happens to be more money for itself. Instead of a ban, the old ordinance had a "Green Fee" scheme to levy a 20-cent charge on any grocery bag, paper or plastic.

The idea was fine: to get you to use your own bags. But it also would have funneled $3 million to $10 million back into City Hall every year. The money was to hire tax auditors to count the fees and green inspectors to make sure stores were paying. There was potentially so much money in it that the city concocted a side plan to hand out $1 million worth of reusable totes.

As a Bellingham activist who pushed through a simpler plastic-bag law there, said: "To have such a huge part of it go to administration, I can understand why the people in Seattle said no."

So how much money does this new law send to government? Zero. Instead of a fee on plastic grocery bags, it simply bans them. Then it puts a 5-cent charge on each paper bag, but the stores get to keep that. So it will sharply cut down on plastic bags — the ones least likely to be recycled. But it doesn't gouge you if you don't remember to bring your own.

There will be no tax collections and no new bureaucracy. I don't think it's the Seattle City Council's first instinct to do things that way. But they got there on the second try.

Some readers at our website were outraged anyway. At last check there were about 700 comments on Seattle's plastic-bag law. Many saying things like "the people voted, the council ignored them." And: "This city is starting to feel like North Korea." Well ... sometimes it's like Singapore. Remember when they were talking about banning spitting? And don't get me started on the $4-an-hour street parking.

But this time around, the city didn't scold us. Or gouge us. Which is why I doubt the plastics industry will try to repeal this new law. They know it's reasonable. Repeal would fail.

Last summer in Portland, Ore., the City Council voted to ban plastic bags at big grocery and retail stores starting this fall. Recently the Eugene paper reviewed how it was going.

The spokeswoman for one of Oregon's largest retailers, Fred Meyer, said there was some hubbub at first. But after a month or two — nothing.

"We haven't heard a peep," she said. "Our customers are fine with it."

So will be Seattle. That's my hunch anyway. Our great plastic-bag debate is over.

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

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