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Seattle voters snub 20-cent tax on bags

By: Mike Verespej

August 24, 2009

The attempt to place a 20-cent fee on all plastic and paper carryout bags in Seattle has been defeated. With more than 79 percent of the expected votes counted at the end of the day Aug. 20, the measure was failing 55 percent to 45 percent.

Seattle City Council had passed the fee on carryout bags July 28, 2008, but the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, funded almost entirely by the American Chemistry Council and its Progressive Bag Affiliates unit, gathered enough signatures to force a mail-in voter referendum on the tax.

Arlington, Va.-based ACC spent nearly $1.4 million in the past 12 months to defeat the tax, while bag tax proponents only raised $64,000 to fund their efforts.

“It appears that the referendum was soundly defeated by Seattle residents,” said Steve Russell, vice president of plastics for ACC. “Residents clearly expressed that a tax was not the way to go. The message it sends to us is that consumers value plastic bags and have rejected the idea of paying a fee for something they value and already use responsibly.”

Russell said, “There wasn't a justification for imposing a fee, particularly of this size, as Seattle residents are incredibly well-intentioned and environmentally responsible.”

“We hope that elected officials nationwide get the message,” said Stephen Joseph, lawyer for the Save the Bag Coalition, which has filed lawsuits to overturn plastic bag bans in California. “Voters don't want carryout bag bans or fees. Period. We hope [the Seattle vote] will have an impact” as voters in Seattle have a reputation for supporting environmental causes. “If they can't do it there, they can't do it anywhere.”

A survey conducted by Elway Research Inc. in Seattle for Seattle Public Utilities nine months prior to council's near-unanimous decision to enact the now-dead tax showed 56 percent of residents opposed a tax on plastic and paper carryout bags.

That survey also found that 89 percent of residents recommended that supermarkets and stores in Seattle voluntarily reduce the number of plastic and paper carryout bags given out annually, estimated to be 360 million.

A King County elections official said late last week that most of the votes were expected to be counted by early this week at the latest. So far, 80,023 votes have been counted and certified. That represents more than 60 percent of the 132,900 votes that officials expected to be cast, as it was anticipated that 35 percent of registered voters would send in ballots.

At press time, the “no” votes stood at 45,687 compared with 34,335 “yes” votes. That means that nearly 59 percent of the remaining ballots that election officials expect to receive would have to be in favor of the tax in order for it to be approved.

The only U.S. city that has approved a tax on plastic bags is Washington, D.C., which in June approved a 5-cent tax on all paper and plastic carryout bags at grocery stores, drug stores and retail food establishments. That tax will go into effect in January. There is also a 5-cent tax on plastic bags in Toronto.

ACC did not say why it did not pursue a referendum in Washington, D.C.

But Shari Jackson, director of ACC's Progressive Bag Affiliates, said the industry “knew ahead of time that the majority of voters in Seattle opposed a fee.”

“In the district, we weren't privy to that kind of information.”

Earlier this summer, efforts to enact a 25-cent fee on plastic carryout bags in California failed.

There are 10 plastic carryout bag bans in the U.S., five of which were enacted this year, including one in Edmonds, Wash., a town of 40,000 located on Puget Sound northwest of Seattle. The Edmonds ban, approved July 28, will go into effect Aug. 27, 2010.

But even though five bans were enacted in 2009, Russell said in light of the large number of proposals put forward, “it still is notable how few have turned into legislation to ban plastic bags.”

According to numbers supplied by ACC, there were roughly 40 proposals at the state level to ban or tax plastic bags in 2009, and 56 in 2008. In addition, there were more than 40 proposals at the community level to tax or ban plastic bags in 2008 and 2009.

“Every community is unique, but the Seattle vote might influence other communities,” said Russell. “We are hopeful that other communities may say that if Seattle residents didn't think a fee was the right way to go, maybe there was a good reason and we should look at that more closely.”

He added, “Most legislators are well-meaning and want to do something for the environment, and the vast majority conclude that promoting recycling is the best way to achieve that.”

In the last two years, mandatory plastic bag recycling has been enacted in four states — California, New York, Rhode Island and Delaware; and five cities — Tucson, Chicago, New York, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; and Red Bank, N.J. In addition, five counties in New York have followed suit: Albany, Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk and Westchester.

During that same time frame, voluntary plastic bag recycling programs have been put into place in Austin, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tempe, Ariz.; Solano Beach, Calif.; and Lake County, Illinois.

“There is a growing list of jurisdictions with positive bag recycling legislation in place,” said Russell. “Given the opportunity for good constructive dialogue, most communities will continue to choose partnerships and positive approaches that will provide real solutions.”

But at the same time, the number of bans is increasing, albeit in small communities.

Seattle had projected that its plastic and paper bag tax would have generated $3.5 million annually to be used for litter collection and recycling initiatives. Stores with less than $1 million in annual sales would have been able to keep the entire 20 cent fee collected per bag, while larger stores would have kept 5 cents, with the rest going to the city.

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