Referendum 1

Ballot Title of Referendum 1

The Seattle City Council passed Ordinance Number 122752 concerning imposing a 20-cent fee on disposable shopping bags. A sufficient number of voters signed a petition to refer the ordinance to a public vote.

This ordinance would require grocery, drug and convenience stores to collect the fee for every disposable shopping bag provided to customers. Stores with annual gross sales of under $1,000,000 could keep all the fees they collected, to cover their costs. Other stores could keep 25% of the fees they collected, and would send the remainder to the City to support garbage reduction and recycling programs. The stores would get a business-tax deduction for the fees they collected.

Should this ordinance be:

8/19 Update: Bag fee rejected in Seattle- 58% to 42%. Read more...

Seattle City Council

Seattle City proposed legislation
from the Seattle City Council website
as of July 24, 2008
Proposal to Tax Disposable Shopping Bags
Proposal to Ban Styrofoam Containers

Seattle’s proposed plastic tax and polystyrene ban have some unique features: The tax proposal is the only one we have seen that includes paper bags. This is designed to avoid the simple switch to the much costlier paper substitute. (Paper bags cost almost 10 times as much to produce than do the disposable plastic bags). The lack of this feature certainly added to the concerns of legislators in Scotland who killed their version of a plastic bag tax. This feature, however, will steer us to polypropylene bags as substitutes. These may prove just as much, if not even more, environmentally problematic than the disposable grocery bags. Furthermore, all sorts of stores and plastic bags are exempt from the tax, potentially reducing its intended effectiveness.

The proposed polystyrene food container ban applies to all restaurants and institutional food services. In Portland, the ban does not apply to schools and institutions and is therefore a bit less strict.

Alternatives to Disposable Shopping Bags and Food Service Items
Prepared by Herrera Environmental Consultants, Inc.
for Seattle Public Utilities
January 2008
Volume I
Volume II

The “The Herrera Report” is the study, commissioned by the city, to look at the plastax and polystyrene ban issues. Herrera is a very reputable local engineering firm. The study however, appears to have been grossly under-funded at $50,000. A robust study like this could cost as much as $300,000 to do carefully. While it is doubtful that the numbers are very accurate, it is the only attempt at cost benefit analysis for the Seattle proposal. Pay especially close attention to the tables, as they contain the crux of the analysis including costs and environmental impacts.

Note that there are no Seattle litter studies. Something called a “litter” analysis for Seattle does exist, but what it actually analyzes is what Seattle Recycling found in public trash cans, not what they found littered throughout the city. We find this report’s omission of an honest look at the impact of plastic bag and polystyrene litter in Seattle to be a grave error. If the rest of the world littered as little as Seattleites do, the plastic bag litter problems we see elsewhere in the world likely would not exist.

Ordinance on the Disposable Bag Fee and Styrofoam (EPS) Ban
These are the two ordinances currently in question. They were passed on July 28, 2008 and were signed by the mayor on July 30, 2008. The ordinances were found on the City Clerk's Office website and accessed on August 14, 2008.

Disposable Bags:
Ordinance No. 122752, Council Bill No. 116251

Syrofoam Containers:
Ordinance No. 122751, Council Bill No. 116250

Additional Seattle References

Report of Washington State’s Recycling Industry (2002)
This study was commissioned by King County and provides quantitative summaries of recycled and remanufactured materials processed in Washington State in 2001. The aim of the report is to measure and document the private recycling industry by focusing on employment, capital investment and material handling to assess trends, emerging markets and opportunities in the industry.

Seattle Public Utilities Litter Composition Study (2001)
The Cascadia Consulting Group and Seattle Public Utilities developed this "litter" analysis on waste found in public trash cans throughout the city of Seattle. Take note that the report does not take actual street litter into account-- all figures on Seattle's litter composition are a result of individuals rummaging through public trash bins and recording the types of garbage people throw away.

Seattle Public Utilities Residential Waste Stream Composition Study (2006)
Another report by the Cascadia Consulting Group that provides data on levels of paper, plastic, glass, metal and organic waste generated by residences in King County. The study breaks down litter composition by household income and size and measures annual percentage changes in various waste categories. Results show that plastic film components comprise a very small percentage of residential litter as food, animal by-products, mixed low grade and compostable paper are disposed in far greater weights than plastic film.

Seattle residential recycling composition study (2005)
The Residential Waste Stream Composition Study conducted by Seattle Public Utilities has been ongoing since 1988 and aims to analyze the composition of waste from residential recycling pickups. The study concluded that 'plastic bags and packaging' account for a mere 0.3%-0.5% (or 127 tons/yr) of residential waste. In contrast, paper was found to account for 75.3% (or 23,793 tons/yr) of residential waste with non-recylable glass following at 17% (5,385 tons/yr).

Seattle to Vote on Bag Fee, Styrofoam Ban (2008)
In a National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast by Ross Reynolds on July 7, 2008, the proposed 20 cent bag tax and Styrofoam ban in Seattle is discussed. Proponents and opponents of the fee were invited to call in to express their views on the problems and benefits of a state-imposed green fee and ban.

Seattle Public Utilities Survey Results (2007)
This survey was conducted by Elway Research, Inc. for Seattle Public Utilities in December 2007. The results clearly indicate that voluntary reductions of plastic bag usage are favored over fees and bans. The survey also showed strong support for stores to voluntarily reduce plastic bag usage by providing in-store recycling bins for shoppers among other measures.

Seattle News Articles

For local news relating to the bag tax, click here.

More information on our sources can be found on the General References page