Grocery Bag Tax

By now, you should have received your mail-in election ballot. We haven’t made up our mind yet who to vote for in most of the races, including mayor (although we’re leaning towards Mike McGinn, but that’s mostly because he seems to be the most “bike friendly” of the lot, and that’s a thin reason to cast a ballot).

We do, however, have a strong opinion on the Ref 1, the Grocery Bag Tax. We’re for it.

We would think we’re preaching to the choir in Wallingford, which tends to be a pretty progressive neighborhood, but in the literature the “No on 1″ folks send us, they list a number of Wallingford residents who make up their “Coalition” (e.g., Mac Hewson, Computer Drafter and Mike Maffei, Self-Employed). They also list a number of residents of “Greenlake” (sic) and “Freemont” (sic), for which we fully expect the folks over at My Green Lake (two words, not one) to mock them.

Really, though, we feel sorry for the folks who have to put together the flier. They’ve got a job to do (albeit one paid for by 7-11 and the Korean American Grocers Association), and it’s a tough one: how do you attack what is mostly just a good idea? We can just seem them sitting around scratching their heads and spitballing ideas: “any chance the plastic bag tax blinds puppies?” “Maybe plastic bags can be used to make biodiesel?”

Here’s what they came up with:

“Hurts those who can least afford it: No exemptions for low-income families or seniors who spend most of their money on grocery items”

Yah, but if the $.20 is important to someone, all they have to do is re-use a bag and presto, they don’t have to pay the tax. The only people who have to pay the tax are those who don’t care enough to re-use a bag. The bottling industry tried to make similar arguments to defeat can and bottle deposits. In practice, where those were enacted, it provided jobs for low-income people who would pull recyclables from public garbage for the refund.

“But big box stores like Walmart and Target may get exempted from the bag tax”

So? They shouldn’t be. But if you thought the bag tax was a bad idea, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Make up your mind.

“Nine different kinds of paper and plastic bags like newspaper, dry cleaning and produce bags are totally exempt”

Again, shouldn’t those guys be arguing that that’s a good thing? If produce bags weren’t exempt, they’d be screaming “even produce bags aren’t exempt!”

And so on. It’s ridiculous. We have an opportunity here to create a strong economic incentive to act in an ecologically friendly way. To those people who will really feel the pinch of the $.20 / bag, there’s an easy way out: re-usable bags. To those people who can’t be bothered with re-usable bags, there’s an easy way out: pay $.20 to Seattle’s recycling program.

If readers disagree, we’ll be interested to read about it in the comments section. And remember, you have until Aug 18th to mail in your ballot.

  1. Nancy M said,

    And it’s a pay-as-you-fee-for-a-bag, not a tax. I’m going to start handing out spare bags with spare change.

    Wed, August 12 at 7:49 am
  2. Eric said,

    Opinion from a dedicated bike rider: McGinn is by far the worst of the lot. All candidates are bike friendly. The issue is who will get the master plan implemented. One thing for Nickels is he’ll steamroll opposition to bike trails- particularly getting the Burke Gillman extended through Ballard.

    McGinn on the other hand will get nothing done. He’ll be spending his time reversing the viaduct replacement decision, sending us back into process land for 5 or 10 more years. The viaduct will likely collapse and kill scores in the next major earthquake, and the 4 lane tunnel is a reasonable compromise replacement. The tunnel pushes cars into fewer lanes, underground, with tolls. Bikes get the waterfront for an extension of the Elliot Bay bike trail.

    McGinn’s base is extreme liberals and conservatives that are unable to compromise or get anything done. Vote for whomever, just please not McGinn.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:47 am
  3. Chris W. said,

    I agree re: the bag issue, Mr. Wallyhood. Didn’t the “No on 1″ folks also complain that it’s a wasteful program because it will spend money sending a reuseable bag to all households (even low income ones)? Wouldn’t that solve the problem for the low income folks? The arguments have done nothing but reinforce my support of the measure.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:50 am
  4. meganc said,

    Word on the bag “tax.” I still haven’t seen a good argument against it, and anything the petroleum and plastics industries are against, I’m probably for. I’m undecided on the mayor, too; would have given Jan Drago a shot until she sent an anti-bag “tax” flier. What the what?!

    Wed, August 12 at 10:00 am
  5. DOUG. said,

    Ditto on referring to this as a “tax”. It is not. Doing so plays into the hands of the American Chemistry Council’s meme.

    As for the bike-friendliness of Greg Nickels as mentioned by Eric above: Say what? In 2007, Nickels shut down the Burke/Gilman Trail under the Fremont Bridge and capitulated on completing Stone Way bike lanes at the behest of Suzie Burke and other developers.

    He railroaded the South Lake Union streetcar through without first taking into account the effect the tracks would have on bicyclists. A year-plus later the bike lanes down there are still haphazard and incomplete.

    Under Nickels SDOT recently shelved the planned (very cheap and simple) traffic-calming restripe of Nickerson Avenue near SPU, which would’ve made walking and cycling safer for thousands of college students. The reason: The effect this restripe would have on the deep-bore tunnel!

    Nickels talks a good Green game, but when push comes to shove he is NOT on the side of cyclists and pedestrians (have you used a downtown sidewalk lately?). He is beholden to big developers and the car culture of Seattle. I’m voting Mike McGinn.

    Wed, August 12 at 10:51 am
  6. Eric said,

    OK, I shouldn’t have mentioned nickels. He’s managed to piss everyone off and the point is that mcginn is bad, not that nickels is good.

    Consider that mcginn has a support base on the fringes, including the far right. Many on the right still want a viaduct rebuild with full capacity. In mcginn they see someone that will block the tunnel so that the state is then forced to rebuild or retrofit the viaduct for public safety (the cheapest option). The equation I see is mcginn –> disfunctional government –> benefit the conservative movement.

    Back to work. Must make more widgets…

    Wed, August 12 at 12:56 pm
  7. Bill said,

    At the risk of starting a flame war here, I’ll out myself as someone voting against the bag tax. I’m doing so because I don’t believe the tax (green fee, or whatever you prefer to call it) is the right approach. If the city were truly trying to do the “green” thing, they would be proposing an outright ban on the bags, rather than trying to implement such a fee.

    I reuse or recycle all my bags already, and have limited my use of disposable bags whenever possible. I may be naive, but I believe most people in the city do the same thing.

    All types of disposable grocery bags are 100% recyclable. I know people disagree with that statement, but why then does the city take them in the recycling?

    Wed, August 12 at 4:21 pm
  8. Carolyn said,

    Not going to flame you, Bill . . . but my understanding is that plastic bags really aren’t 100% recyclable — or at least not reasonably recyclable.

    I also think it’s a bit of wishful thinking on your part to believe most of us re-use or recycle bags most of the time. This article says only 2% of plastic bags in the US are recycled:

    I know they have an ax to grind, but this organization ( says “it costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32 (Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment as reported by Christian Science Monitor).” Not terribly economical.

    I don’t know if this is true of Seattle, but they go on to say, “Furthermore many bags collected for recycling never get recycled. A growing trend is to ship them to Third world countries like India and China which are rapidly becoming the dumping grounds for the Western world’s glut of recyclables. Rather than being recycled they are cheaply incinerated under more lax environmental laws.”

    I’m not sure the bag “tax” is better than an outright ban of plastic bags, but it’s a step. Just sayin’.

    Wed, August 12 at 6:21 pm
  9. Janey said,

    I’ve been accused of being “the best informed uninformed voter” on more than one issue. I am going to vote for the initiative, despite the fact that I think it’s a stupid way to deal with bags. (I mean, just ban them, for god’s sake!) However, I am so annoyed by the amount of money the plastics industry and other interests from way outside our city have poured into this election, I have to vote against those folks.

    I could go on about the issue of “reusing or recycling bags”,and what that actually means, but will spare y’all.

    Wed, August 12 at 8:43 pm
  10. Chris W. said,

    Sort off topic, but anyone who puts the word “y’all” in print, and gets the punctuation right, is alright by me Janey!

    Bill, I totally hear you. I supported the measure, hoping its a step toward outright bans later. But I agree the fee approach isn’t ideal.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:08 pm
  11. Wallyhood said,

    I think the fee is a reasonable compromise between doing nothing and outright banning. I can see that as a consumer (and as a store owner), it would be pretty frustrating to make a stop at a store and realize that I can’t buy what I need because I don’t have anything to carry it home in (if they were banned altogether). The $.20 is a gentle reminder to be more prepared the next time.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:10 pm
  12. Ethan said,

    I will be voting against the bag tax (and any time the government demands a cut of a transaction it’s not otherwise involved in, that’s a tax, folks). In general, expense correlates with resource consumption, and plastic bags are so cheap because they use very little resources each. A reusable bag uses considerably more resources than a thin plastic bag, so if it isn’t reused many hundreds of times, there’s a net cost in resources. I’ve had reusable bags break after a few tens of uses.

    Adding this tax will force retail stores to collect it instead of making the bags conveniently available. That will add hassle to my shopping experience. As I was going through the self-service line of the QFC today, I found myself wondering how they will replace the convenient system we now have whereby I pull off bags from the supply as needed. Will the attendant need to sell them by the each to all the shoppers?

    And it is harder for poor people, esp. w/o stable housing, to keep track of reusable bags, so even if they get a free one in the mail, this will end up costing them more than the rest of us.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:32 pm
  13. Ryan said,

    Another important thing to know is that if an establishment who is subject to the tax makes less than 1 million (revenue or profit im not sure) per year, they keep the proceeds. Given that a vast majority of the covered establishments fall below this mark in Seattle, this offsets arguments that it will hurt small businesses. Also, the Wal-Mart argument fails as there isnt a wal-mart within King county. I’m not a fan of sin taxes but ill probably vote for this one.

    Wed, August 12 at 9:51 pm
  14. DOUG. said,

    The bag itself is not part of any transaction, Ethan. And the fee is entirely optional based upon consumer behavior. It is not a tax.

    Wed, August 12 at 10:22 pm
  15. Ethan said,

    Doug: I give QFC money, and they give me groceries in bags (when I don’t bring in my own bags, which I often do today). That’s a transaction. With this law, I give them extra money, which they give the government. I don’t see how that’s not a tax.

    I don’t choose to buy liquor, so I don’t pay that tax: it’s entirely optional based on my consumer behavior. Does that make it not a tax?

    Wed, August 12 at 10:37 pm
  16. DOUG. said,

    Ethan: At most stores bagging is optional. Even the self-service checkouts have a “skip bagging” option. It is not part of your grocery transaction.

    Thu, August 13 at 8:07 am
  17. Bill said,

    The mayor and city council (in my opinion) don’t always think of the unintended consequences of their actions.

    If this were to pass, I would see many people having to spend a lot more money on heavy garbage bags. Many people reuse the grocery bags for trash. Also, many more people use them to dispose of animal waste. Those people would then have to use bags which are much worse for the environment.

    Also, what about all the people who will choose to shop outside Seattle? Another unintended consequence.

    Also, when I shop at Costco or Cash & Carry where they offer lower prices, I don’t take issue with the fact that they don’t offer any kind of bag. However, when I am paying top dollar at a retail store like QFC or Bartells, I expect that the higher prices I am paying include the cost of bags. Are these stores going to lower their prices since this cost would no longer be included? I doubt it.

    Thu, August 13 at 8:47 am
  18. HooHooTwo said,

    I am loving these discussions. The Seattle Times is finally earning its keep in my household by publishing the following articles today: “Punches fly over tunnel as vote nears” (front page of the paper version (yikes)), and “How bad are disposable grocery bags?” (first page of B section). Just charts and graphs about the bags, no editorializing. Yep, the “disposables” are pretty bad. Yes, we all tend to re-use them for trash and what-not, but shouldn’t we be paying a fraction (.20, and I’m still not clear where it goes)) of the cost of producing those bags if we need them? Also, I think everything will adjust very quickly in a positive direction when it becomes necessary. Greener trash bag products will come on the market, people will adapt their behaviors, etc. The bottom line (from the article) is that “it takes more energy and materials to produce reusable bags but they have lower environmental impacts than any type of disposable bag after just FOUR uses.”

    As for the tunnel, as many questions were raised as were answered. I still have no idea who to vote for–I don’t like McGinn’s position on Seattle Schools.

    Thu, August 13 at 12:21 pm
  19. Carolyn said,

    @HooHooTwo, I like this discussion, too. And the information you provided was helpful, since I don’t subscribe to the Times. Thanks!

    What’s more, there are already greener versions of dog poop and trash bags on the market. I’ve gotten biodegradable poop bags at Target and compostable trash bags at Fred Meyer.

    Thu, August 13 at 6:37 pm
  20. Chuck said,

    I too am voting against the bag ban / tax. I think it’s patently unfair — why just tax the grocery and convenience stores? Why not WalMart (there’s one in Renton, King County, BTW), Best Buy, Target, Freddies, Nordstroms, et al?

    But the real reason I’m voting NO is that the tax also includes paper bags. If it was only plastic bags, I’d vote YES. Paper bags hold quite a bit of groceries (especially for a family that shops approximately every 14 days), and then they end up lining the garbage can under the sink.

    Admittedly, I do feel like a hypocrite voting with the plastic and chemical industries. By basic feeling is if corporate is behind it, vote opposite.

    But all this is moot as global warming winds up for the pitch . . .

    Fri, August 14 at 8:21 pm
  21. Wallyhood said,

    It’s not a tax ON the grocery and convenience stores. They get to COLLECT the $.20 and keep it (if they make less than $1M / year, which small groceries and convenience stores definitely do). It’s a fee to consumers who choose not to re-use bags. If anything, it’s a give-away to small businesses at the expense of big businesses.

    And the Walmart bit is a red herring: this is a City of Seattle tax, and there are no Walmarts in the City of Seattle. It’s not a County ordinance, so it CAN’T apply to Renton.

    Fri, August 14 at 8:43 pm
  22. Mike Kale said,

    Ethan said “plastic bags are so cheap because they use very little resources each”

    Plastic bags use very little resources _to produce_. However they don’t decompose and sit around for zillions of years polluting after they’re produced. That’s an additional cost (to the environment) which we’re not paying today. The bag fee/tax/whatever you call it is an attempt to get the $$ cost of the bag closer to the _actual_ cost of the bag. That allows consumers to make rational choices with how many bags to buy vs. reuse.

    It’s the same with oil: gasoline costs $X/gallon to drill/refine/distribute and does $Y in damage to the environment when burned. But all you pay for is $X. If we could somehow charge $X+Y to buy it, then people could make rational choices with their money deciding how many gallons of gasoline to buy. (Yes, I know it’s impossible to quantify $Y).

    Sat, August 15 at 10:30 am
  23. Bill said,

    I simply don’t see this fee changing anyone’s habits. Recently, the parking fee for many areas including downtown was raised to $2.50 per hour. Surely, the city defended this increase by saying they hoped it would encourage people to take the bus or walk. Has it? Is there suddenly a lot more parking available downtown? Then answer is no, with these “hidden taxes” like the bag fee, people often don’t realize they are paying them until it’s too late and they have already parked, or already grocery shopped. They just end up paying it.

    In these economic times, I’m sure the city is desperate to find new revenue sources. It’s just the wrong time to be trying to implement this IMO.

    Sat, August 15 at 6:43 pm
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