Seattle's 20-cent plastic-bag fee on hold until citywide vote, likely next August
For the time being, Seattle shoppers can use all the free disposable bags they want. What was supposed to be the country's first fee on paper and plastic bags will not start on Jan. 1. Instead, Seattle voters will be able to ratify or reject the fee, likely in next August's primary election.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What was supposed to be the country's first fee on paper and plastic bags will not start on Jan. 1, as the city's mayor and City Council had wanted.
For the time being, Seattle shoppers can use all the free disposable bags they want.
Groceries and the plastics industry have collected enough signatures to put the 20-cent-per-bag fee to a citywide vote, likely part of the primary next Aug. 18. Seattle voters will be able to ratify or reject the fee, which would apply to bags in grocery, drug- and convenience stores.
Opponents of the fee say the referendum is evidence Seattle's elected officials have sailed too far ahead of the electorate with their environmental goals.
George Griffin, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, which collected the signatures for the referendum, described feedback from voters.
"We heard, 'Yes, we are into conservation. We do want to recycle, we just think there's a better way, and we don't want to be penalized if I forget to bring a bag to the store,' " he said.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastics industry, paid for most of the signature-gathering campaign.
One City Council member agreed city leaders need to scale back their green ambitions.
"In its attempt to be green, the city has gone far enough to tip the balance for some people," said Councilmember Richard McIver, who called the fee "overreaching." McIver was in the hospital at the time of the vote.
In addition to the bag fee, the city has undertaken several environmental initiatives this year: requiring single-family homes to pay for food-waste recycling in April 2009; converting taxis to fuel-efficient cars; ending the purchase of bottled water by city departments; and holding car-free days in three neighborhoods this summer.
Mayor Greg Nickels proposed and the City Council approved the bag fee to encourage the use of reusable bags and reduce waste.
Unless the City Council chooses to hold a special election, the referendum will take place during the Aug. 18 primary.
"The people of Seattle have a long history of making smart decisions for the environment," said Karin Zaugg Black, spokeswoman for the mayor's office. "We look forward to a debate between the American Chemistry Council and the residents of Seattle."
Council President Richard Conlin also expressed optimism. "I would be quite confident that once voters have a chance to review information and data that they would be likely to support this," he said.
The council could also choose to repeal the legislation and pass an alternative to the fee, which Conlin called an option.
The King County elections division on Monday verified the anti-fee coalition had collected 15,099 valid signatures out of 22,292 submitted. A referendum required 14,374, or 8 percent of the ballots cast in the last mayoral election. According to election records, the coalition spent $180,625 collecting signatures.
The referendum campaign will not affect legislation the council passed banning polystyrene containers and plastic utensils at businesses that serve food.
The ban on polystyrene will take effect in January and will expand to include plastic containers and utensils in July 2010.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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