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Plastic bag ban is on the menu

It was inevitable that the Mercer Island City Council would set about to ban one-use plastic bags. It is part of the sustainability effort now embraced by the council as it hopes to meet its climate protection measure that it set out for itself more than five years ago.

In May of 2007, the City Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1389, which “commits the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through city operations and through community education.” The work program included in the resolution calls for calculating the citywide “carbon footprint,” which is a measure of the impact that human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. Other measures include promoting bicycling and walking, converting the city fleet to hybrid or biofuel vehicles, increasing recycling, and maintaining healthy urban forests throughout the Island.”

But there is much to consider when taking this next step. How will a plastic bag ban be imposed? What will the effects be on retailers and consumers who might be asked to pay a fee? What kinds of bags will be regulated? Who will be exempt? What about the health risk of reused bags and other issues brought up by opponents of the ban?

Earlier this year, the City Council directed city staff to look at plastic bag ordinances currently in effect in Washington state and across the country. At the City Council meeting, staff presented their findings to the Council, looking for further direction in how to proceed.

City staff found that “the adoption of single use plastic carry-out bag (‘plastic bag’) regulations by municipalities is a growing local and global trend.” Yet just nine cities and one county in Washington state have adopted total or partial bans of plastic bags. They include Bainbridge Island (2012), Bellingham (2011), Edmonds (2009), Issaquah (2012), Mukilteo (2011), Port Townsend (2012), Seattle (2011), Shoreline (2013), Tumwater (2013) and Thurston County (2013).

City staff found over 100 ordinances have been passed in the United States, including, Eugene, Ore.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, Los Angeles County, Calif.; Homer, Alaska; Washington, D.C.; Montgomery County, Md.; Aspen, Colo.; and Marshall County, Iowa.

City staff materials say that those who embrace a ban on plastic bags or more regulations point to the damaging environmental impact of plastic bags that are not recycled or disposed of properly.  When they enter ecosystems, “the bags break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, and are mistaken for food by fish and other marine animals,” the staff report said.

And they are everywhere.

According to a City of Seattle study, grocery, convenience stores and drug stores generate about 70 percent of all plastic bags, and only about 15 percent of these are recycled.

Ross Freeman, the City of Mercer Island’s sustainability coordinator, said that promoting reusable vs. other bags is just one but an important way to encourage sustainability.

Opponents argue that the environmental impact of plastic bags is exaggerated and that the cost of using plastic bags does not outweigh the utility. More recently, the potential public health risk arising from the frequent use of reusable bags has been in the news. In contrast, while paper bags take more energy to produce, they are made from renewable resources, and approximately 80 percent are captured by local recycling programs.

With some reservations on the cost to retailers and question about how to phase in the changes, the Council directed city staff to continue work on the ordinance.

Freeman noted that because of the work done by other cities in implementing bag regulations, it will not be a big surprise to consumers here.

“We are not first on the court on this one,” he said.

Mayor Bassett, however, wanted to emphasize that while he supports a ban on lightweight plastic bags, it is just a small step in the process toward the larger goal of sustainability that he and the Council have in mind.

“The trip  to the supermarket in your car has more impact than on what kind of bag you use,” he said to an empty Council chamber. “The bag decision is at least visible. It is worth doing, but it would be a mistake if we did it and did not do other things.”

What is next:

City staff will work to design an ordinance by answering some of the policy questions below:

• Should the regulations mirror the ordinances currently in effect in other Washington jurisdictions?

• What retailers will be covered by the ordinance?

• What types of bags will be prohibited? The Council determined that the lightweight plastic bags most commonly used by retailers should be banned.

• Should there be a charge for permitted (paper) bags provided by the retailer?

• What type of enforcement measures will be included?

• When should the ordinance go into effect?

• How to encourage the safe use of reusable bags?


 

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