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Originally published July 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 8, 2008 at 10:52 AM

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Seattle may impose fee for paper, plastic grocery bags

To reduce waste in Seattle, the City Council will hold a public hearing today to discuss a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags and a foam-container ban at restaurants.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bag fee and foam ban

The Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed 20-cent bag fee and foam ban today at 7 p.m., Council Chambers in Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave., second floor.

20-cent bag fee: If passed, shoppers would pay 20 cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag used at grocery, convenience and drugstores starting in January. Stores would keep a nickel to cover the cost of administering the fee. Small stores that gross less than $1 million annually would keep the entire 20 cents. Each household would receive at least one free, reusable shopping bag.

Foam ban: Restaurants and grocery stores would have to switch from Styrofoam or other polystyrene containers and cups to plastic or biodegradable alternatives in January. In July 2010, the ban would expand to include plastics, such as utensils and deli containers. Businesses would have to use all biodegradable containers.

Yoko Wang, owner of Toshio's Teriyaki in Rainier Valley, is not too worried about a possible ban on Styrofoam clamshells in Seattle. She's confident that biodegradable containers to keep her broiled, boneless chicken hot will be available by the time the city mandates the switch — in July 2010.

She was shocked, however, to hear the ban would extend to plastics, right down to each chili-sauce container and fork.

"Everybody is going to have to use chopsticks," Wang said after her Monday lunch rush. "I can give lessons."

Today, the City Council will hold a public hearing on Mayor Greg Nickels' proposal to ban foam at restaurants and grocery stores, and impose a 20-cent fee for each disposable paper and plastic bag used in the checkout line at all grocery, convenience and drugstores. Both are likely to gain council approval.

Even if it's costly, Nickels says shoppers, consumers and businesses need to do right by the environment.

Council President Richard Conlin, who helped draft the plan, said the changes are needed because "we know about the environmental problems caused by plastic in the middle of the Pacific, to the plastic that clogs our drains, to the litter we find on our streets. Here's a chance to do something where there are excellent substitutes available."

The city modeled the bag fee on a similar program in Ireland that reduced plastic-bag use by 90 percent. Portland and several cities in California have already banned foam food containers.

The proposals before the council follow a series of laws the city has adopted to reduce the amount of trash Seattle sends to an Oregon landfill.

Recycling aluminum, paper and glass has been mandatory at most homes since 2006, and if residents don't comply, the garbage gets left on the curb.

Nickels recently issued an executive order ending the purchase of all bottled water by city departments. Starting in April, all single-family homes will be required to recycle food scraps.

Grocery-store associations oppose the bag fee, saying it should extend to all retail stores. With rising food prices, now is not the time to add to the consumer's grocery bill, representatives have said at council meetings.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell wonders why plastic bags aren't added to the list of items that households must recycle. Residents recycle 13 percent of all plastic bags, according to the city.

Some have questioned why the city would require low-income families to pay for disposable bags. The city plans to distribute some reusable bags for free — at least one per household.

"I still want questions asked on the impact on low-income people and small businesses," said Harrell, who has not taken a position on the bag fee or the foam ban.

"The challenge is when you ask difficult questions some want to view it as environmentally unfriendly."

The foam ban would take effect in two stages. In January, foam products would be banned at restaurants and groceries, which could switch to plastic products. In July 2010, plastics would be banned and only biodegradable containers allowed. The city estimates a restaurant would have to pay 10 cents more for a compostable food container. Cups would cost 5 cents more.

Wang, who has run Toshio's in Rainier Valley for the past seven years, says she understands the city's desire to preserve the environment. "We have to cooperate for global warming."

She is not sure whether she would raise her prices to pay for more expensive biodegradable containers. "Everything is going up — chicken, beef. That is the hard part. I don't know what I should do."

Several customers said Monday they would be willing to pay another dime to protect the environment.

"It might drive up costs in the short run but it will be worth it in the long run," said Genghis Navarro, who was standing in line.

The price of the chicken teriyaki, according to the sign on the wall, is $5.71. According to another sign, prayer is free.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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