Courtesy of SPU

Plastic bag ban kicks in July 1 (and a reminder to wash those reusable bags)

Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously in December to ban plastic grocery bags, and the plan takes effect on July 1.

Seattle retailers and grocers will be required to stop offering single-use plastic bags on that date, and the city is encouraging citizens to either purchase reusable bags or plan on paying at least five cents for paper bags.

While the ban will likely cause uproar from some and an inconvenience for many, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien justifies the ban thusly on his website: “Washingtonians use more than 2 billion single-use plastic bags each year. Seattle alone uses approximately 292 million … and only 13 percent are recycled. Too many plastic bags end up in Puget Sound where they do not biodegrade.”

With the five cent disincentive charge for paper, the City is clearly recommending reusable bags, generally made of either cloth or polypropylene.

According to environmental group Zero Waste Seattle, paper is worse than plastic in terms of greenhouse gas production, but “paper bags biodegrade whereas plastic bags just break down into smaller pieces that remain for hundreds of years, harming our wildlife. Ultimately, reusable bags are the best.”

Mark Daniels, Chair of the American Progressive Bag Alliance (representing the plastic bag industry) said in a June 20 statement, “Seattle’s plastic bag ban will have an immediate negative impact on the wallets of Seattle shoppers and, ironically, the environment. Seattleites will now be forced to purchase reusable bags which cannot be recycled, are predominantly imported from China, and have been proven to harbor dangerous bacteria (more on that later in the story) … We intend to continue to fight to protect American jobs, which are at risk by ideologically-driven policies that seek a political solution, instead of an environmentally sound one.”

Daniels said a better solution would be a statewide recycling program for plastic bags.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, according to Seattle Public Utilities:
-Low-income customers using vouchers or electronic benefit cards are exempt from the five cent paper bag charge.

-Plastic bags used for bulk items, vegetables, meat fish, poultry, frozen food, flowers, deli food “and similar where moisture would be a problem” will still be available at grocery stores.

-Restaurants can still use plastic bags for carry-out orders

-Dry-cleaner, newspaper and door hanger bags are allowed. Plastic bags sold expressly as garbage bags, pet waste bags or compost bags are still allowed.

-“Thicker” plastic bags at 2.25 mil or more (like the burly ones used by department stores) are still allowed as they are not considered single-use.

SPU is giving most retailers a grace period to run through their current stock of plastic bags, so although the ban kicks in on July 1, you still might run into them here and there.

The five cent minimum charge for paper is only required for larger bags but stores may, at their discretion, charge it for any size. Stores keep the fee.

To avoid finding yourself at the store without reusable bags, SPU recommends always having a few stashed away in your vehicle (if driving) or backpack/purse/satchel (if going by foot, bike or bus).

Don’t forget to wash those reusable bags
While reusable bags are considered good for a healthy environment (by some), they do pose a personal health risk if not properly cared for, according to a recent study.

A 2010 University of Arizona and Loma Linda University study found that 97 percent of reusable bag users “almost never cleaned or washed” their bags. Those bags were lab tested and the study found “large numbers of bacteria … found in every reusable bag,” including E. coli in half the bags tested. No bacteria was found in brand new reusable bags or single use plastic bags.

The study summarized “a potential significant risk of bacterial cross contamination exists from using reusable bags to carry groceries.” The solution? Add those bags to the laundry pile on a regular basis, or give them a good scrub. The study found bacteria levels in those trouble bags after a wash were reduced by over 99.9 percent.

Second time’s the charm
With the July ban taking effect, Seattle joins San Francisco, Los Angeles County, Portland, OR, Washington DC and Edmonds and Bellingham in Washington in banning the bags.

The city council attempted to pass a plastic and paper bag fee of 20 cents in 2008 but, according to William Yardley with the New York Times, “the plastic-bag industry led a petition drive that forced the issue onto a citywide ballot.” Yardley said the industry spent $1.4 million and Seattle voters rejected the fee in 2009.

“Twenty cents felt kind of punitive, especially for low-income folks,” Councilmember O’Brien told Yardley.

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