City Council bans plastic bags at Issaquah retailers
June 12, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Ordinance goes into effect for most businesses in March 2013
Issaquah joined a string of cities along Puget Sound to outlaw plastic bags at local retailers June 4, after months of sometimes-acrimonious debate about adverse impacts to the marine environment and the regional economy.
In the end, concerns about the environment led the City Council to decide 5-2 to eliminate most retail uses for plastic bags. The legislation — and a 5-cent fee on paper bags — go into effect in March 2013 for most businesses.
The council listened to advocates from environmental groups and the plastics industry in public meetings throughout April and May, and then again before the decision.
The plastic bag ban sponsor, Issaquah Highlands entrepreneur and City Councilman Mark Mullet, presented the legislation as a way to reduce the estimated 10 million plastic bags the city sends to the King County landfill each year.
Proponents said plastic bags pose problems at recycling facilities and use up space at the local landfill needed for nonrecyclable items. Opponents said outlawing the bags could hurt businesses in the region, from plastics manufacturers to mom-and-pop stores.
“I believe that our society must change our habits so that we are not so wasteful of nonrenewable resources,” Issaquah resident Lori Danielson said before the council decision. “Our population is growing fast, and in order to ensure a high quality of life in years to come, we must conserve and thoughtfully use the limited nonrenewable resources that we have.”
What to know
Do retailers offer discounts for reusable bags?
Retailers prefer customers use reusable bags because the practice saves money as stores need to purchase fewer bags for consumers.
Target, for instance, offers a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag used during purchase.
Other major retailers, such as Safeway, phased out reusable bag discounts in recent years after executives said the incentive did not do enough to change consumer behavior.
Fred Meyer and QFC — both owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. — do not offer a reusable-bag discount, but encourage customers to tote reusable bags instead of using paper or plastic.
What does the plastic bag ban exempt?
Though the ordinance requires most plastic bags to disappear from retailers in March 2013, consumers should not expect to see the bags vanish altogether.
The legislation contains exemptions for plastic bags for bakery items, bulk foods, meat, produce, dry cleaning, newspapers, small hardware items and takeout foods.
In addition, the measure exempts food banks, state and federal financial assistance program recipients, and services for low-income earners from the 5-cent fee.
What city could adopt a plastic bag ban next?
In Port Townsend, City Council members considered a plastic bag ban on the same day as Issaquah leaders.
Port Townsend council members sent the legislation to a council committee for additional discussion. In the initial vote June 4, members approved the plastic bag ban. Once the measure returns to the full council from committee, members expect to approve the legislation next month.
Ken Holmes, marketing director for Seattle-based bag manufacturer American Plastics Manufacturing, said the measure harms the economy rather than aids the environment.
“There’s got to be better uses of your time and resources than legislation that hurts working families and small businesses while doing nothing for the environment,” he said.
In addition to limiting most plastic bags, the legislation requires retail stores to collect 5 cents for each paper bag provided to customers. The fee is meant to help offset the changeover cost as retailers eliminate plastic bags.
Ordinance does not ban all bags from retailers
Still, consumers should not expect plastic bags to disappear from local businesses altogether.
The ordinance includes exemptions for numerous everyday uses, such as plastic bags to carry dry cleaning and newspapers.
The legislation also exempts restaurants, so diners can expect compostable takeout containers to come in plastic bags at some establishments. The city mandated compostable takeout containers for restaurants in November 2009.
The plastic bag ban goes into effect March 1, 2013, for retailers of 7,500 square feet — or a little larger than Blakely Hall in the Issaquah Highlands — or more. The measure does not go into effect for smaller businesses until March 1, 2014.
Councilman Joshua Schaer, a ban opponent, instead called for the city to consider a user fee for plastic bags.
Issaquah is the only Eastside city — and the only municipality inland from Puget Sound — to enact such legislation.
The plastic bag ban is similar to ordinances in Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo. But local officials ordered a phased implementation and added provisions for organizers of outdoor festivals, such as Salmon Days, to apply for waivers from the ordinance.
“This isn’t Seattle’s bill. This isn’t anybody else’s bill. This is Issaquah’s bill,” Council President Tola Marts said.
The legislation passed by the council also authorized up to $9,900 for the city to conduct a reusable bag distribution effort and launch a public education program.
The decision was the culmination of months of discussion and outreach.
The proposed plastic bag ban last reached the council for a possible decision April 2, but after listening to comments from environmental organizations and plastics manufacturers — but only a handful of remarks from city residents — members delayed action.
In a push to collect more input on the proposal to outlaw plastic bags at Issaquah businesses, the council scheduled additional opportunities for the public to comment on the ban.
Opposition comes from environmentalists, merchants
Local environmentalists split on the legislation, despite the possible environmental benefits supporters described.
The vocal Issaquah Environmental Council came out against the proposal after members said the legislation did not go far enough to encourage consumers to switch to reusable bags. Save Lake Sammamish, a group dedicated to a healthy lake and watershed, supported the plastic bag ban.
Statewide lobbyists for grocers and restaurateurs advocated for the plastic bag ban.
Holly Chisa, Washington lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, a plastic bag ban backer, urged council members not to yield to outside opposition to the legislation. The trade group represents Fred Meyer, QFC and Safeway.
Overall, local business owners offered a lukewarm response to the proposal, and the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce declined to take a position on the issue.
“I expected a larger outcry from small businesses, because I was concerned — and I continue to be concerned — about the impact on small businesses,” Councilwoman Stacy Goodman said.
Councilwoman Eileen Barber said the ordinance could create a competitive disadvantage for Issaquah businesses, and then she cast a vote against the legislation.
“At this moment in time, we will be one of the only cities on the Eastside that has this, and it will definitely probably affect business,” she said.
Representatives from “green” businesses in Issaquah and the surrounding area, PCC Natural Markets and Cedar Grove Composting, advocated for the legislation.
“We’re a business, too, and, unfortunately, when we screen this material out, it actually hurts our ability to take good organic material. It adds a lot of costs, it adds a lot of people to pick this out of the material that comes in,” said Cedar Grove Composting representative Susan Thoman, a Ziploc bag full of carryout plastic bags in hand.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.