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Originally published June 19, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Page modified June 19, 2012 at 9:37 PM

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Seattle retailers get handle on plastic-bag ban that starts July 1

From small ethnic groceries to major chains, retail stores across Seattle are preparing for July 1, when a plastic-bag ban takes effect. With fewer than two weeks to go, many stores appear to be embracing the change, while some still are working out logistics.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The plastic-bag ban

Seattle's new law, which bans thin, single-use plastic shopping bags, will take effect July 1. Other particulars:

• Customers who don't bring reusable bags will be charged 5 cents for paper shopping bags.

• Customers who use state Basic Food cards are exempt from the fee, as are patrons of food banks.

• Plastic bags still are allowed for takeout food from restaurants.

• Plastic bags still will be available for vegetables, meat and bulk foods as well as anything that could leak or pose a health hazard.

• Bags thicker than 2.25 millimeters are considered reusable and may be provided with or without charge at the store's discretion.

Source: City of Seattle

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At a downtown Seattle Bartell Drugs store, the reusable shopping bags are stacked near the front, along with a message board that proclaims, "We're going GREEN."

From small ethnic groceries to major chains, retail stores across the city are preparing for July 1, when a plastic-bag ban adopted by the city in December takes effect.

Stores are using existing supplies of thin, carryout grocery bags. They're commissioning artists to design attractive reusable bags with familiar logos, and they're laying in bigger supplies of the paper grocery bags that will be offered instead of plastic for a 5-cent fee.

City of Seattle staff, armed with five translators, have contacted more than 500 stores. They also have mailed explanatory fliers to more than 10,000 businesses, according to officials at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which coordinates the city's waste-reduction efforts.

But, with fewer than two weeks to go, stores say they still are trying to work out many logistics, from whether they can use existing stocks of plastic bags after the ban takes effect (yes) to figuring out the fine points of the law, such as whether plastic still can be used to bag ice cream or cleaning products at the checkout stand (yes).

Still, several stores visited last week seem to embrace the change.

"Seattle has a strong environmental identity," said Theron Andrews, vice president of marketing for Bartell Drugs, which has 19 Seattle stores. "As part of Seattle and the local community, this is in our DNA."

The City Council adopted the ban at the urging of local environmental groups, which said it would help protect marine life in Puget Sound. Seattleites use 292 million plastic bags a year but recycle only 13 percent of them, according to SPU.

In 2009, Seattle voters rejected a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags that had been approved by the City Council. The plastics industry spent $1.4 million to defeat the measure. While that measure never took effect, many residents started carrying reusable bags.

"A lot of people have already made the change," said City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the plastic-bag ban. "I'm sure we'll hear from some folks in the beginning that it's an inconvenience, but I'm confident that within a few weeks, they'll see this as normal."

Bartell Drugs also had a bit of a head start. It has a store in Edmonds, which adopted a plastic-bag ban in 2009. Andrews said that store smoothly made the transition to paper, but the company didn't put its logo on the bags because at the time it was the only store in the chain subject to a ban on plastic.

Bartell now has ordered paper grocery bags with its logo as well as commissioned two reusable bags with Washington and Seattle themes.

"I think we're ready," Andrews said.

At Uwajimaya, an Asian specialty grocery in the Chinatown International District, staffers have the added challenge of informing many non-English speaking customers about the new law.

Alann Hamada, the store's director, said many patrons are frugal and won't understand why they are being charged a nickel for a paper grocery bag when they have been receiving plastic bags for free. Some also now ask for extra plastic bags to use around the house.

When the ban on plastic goes into effect, he predicts some shoppers will collect extra "perimeter bags," the clear plastic bags at the produce, meat and bulk-food sections that still will be allowed under the new ordinance. He also fears the store's plastic shopping baskets will begin to disappear.

"Five cents is still 5 cents," he said. "Some of our customers won't want to pay."

Uwajimaya has commissioned colorful reusable shopping bags — one features a bright red dragon, and another has a Bento-box-style design created by local artist Ken Taya that features the store's familiar "Niko-Niko Boy" logo.

The bags already hang from the ceiling at the front of the store, along with paper lanterns and koi-printed kites.

On a recent afternoon, two outreach workers from the city talked with Hamada about strategies for handling customer reactions and how to make the change more visible to non-English-speaking shoppers.

Stephanie Terrell, with Resource Ventures, an outreach service of the utility, suggested the store display at the cash registers cards printed by the city in six languages that inform customers about the new law.

Hamada says the change from plastic to paper will increase his bag costs by 50 percent, but he says he's grateful the city is imposing the 5-cent fee to help offset the higher cost.

"That makes it easier for us to compete with larger stores that otherwise might have given them away for free," he said.

Terrell assures Hamada that the store will be able to use its existing supply of thin plastic bags.

But the city is encouraging the store, and chains with outlets outside the city, to send the remainder to those other stores to hasten the transition from plastic.

For the foreseeable future, the city won't fine merchants who aren't following the ban, said Dick Lilly, who is managing the implementation for SPU. Instead, he said, staff will call on stores that aren't using paper bags or aren't charging the nickel fee and ask them to comply.

At a Safeway store on Queen Anne Hill, assistant store manager Amy Hill poses numerous questions to Terrell and to Pat Kaufman, a recycling specialist for SPU.

Hill wonders about customers using the state Basic Food card who are exempt from the paper-bag charge. How will cashiers know not to charge them, she asks.

As Hill and Terrell talk, Hill decides cashiers won't add the charge until the end of the transaction, when the method of payment is clear.

Hill has worked at Safeway stores for 16 years and remembers the adjustment of both staff and customers when plastic shopping bags were introduced and the question, "paper or plastic?" became ubiquitous.

She already has begun to remind customers about the upcoming ban and to reassure them that Safeway sells plastic bags with which to line trash bins and kitty-litter boxes and to pick up dog poop.

"I tell them it's about reducing waste," Hill said. "A lot of customers are supportive. It's all about getting used to change."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305

or lthompson@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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