Seattle To Vote On Plastic Bag Tax


Seattle residents will vote on a 20 cent plastic bag tax on August 18. The tax would affect grocery, drug, and convenience stores. Small businesses, those with revenue under $1 million, would keep the entire 20 cent fee. Bigger businesses would keep five cents, with 15 cents going to Seattle Public Utilities to pay for implementing and overseeing the program, plus provide free reusable bags to low income families, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters.

Last summer the Seattle City Council voted for the 20 cent tax, but the Coalition to Stop Seattle Bag Tax collected enough signatures to put the measure on the August 2009 ballot. The Coalition received the majority of its funding ($1.4 million) from the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA) of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). ACC members include Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and plastic-bag manufacturers.

A plastic bag tax is a Pigouvian tax, named after the economist A.C. Pigou. The website, defines it as “a tax on external activities (externalities)…actions not taken into account by the acting party.” The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines it as “a tax levied on an agent causing an environmental externality (environmental damage) as an incentive to avert or mitigate such damage.

The real cost of free plastic bags

Manufacturing plastic bags requires petroleum and natural gas. Once the bags end up in landfills they take 1,000 years to break down. An estimated eight billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps, and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the U.S. Only 0.6 percent of all plastic bags are recycled, according to World Watch Institute.

According to a 2001 Japanese study plastic debris is like a sponge for toxic chemicals which contaminates oceans. Plastic is the most common ocean litter, according to a recent UNEP study. The report stated, “Plastic – especially plastic bags and PETbottles – is the most prevalent component of marine debris, poses hazards because it persists so long in the ocean, degrading into tinier and tinier bits that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web.”

Ireland’s PlasTax, IKEA’s phase out of plastic bags

In 2002, Ireland instituted a 20 cent tax on plastic shopping bags. Last year the tax increased to 33 cents. During the first three months, the amount of plastic bags used by Irish consumers decreased 90 percent and raised $3.45 million. After one year it decreased by 94 percent and raised $9.6 million.

Retailers now promote the tax. Founder of the Superquinn grocery store chain in Ireland, Senator Feargal Quinn said, “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it. But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”

IKEA began phasing out plastic bags in its U.S. stores by charging five cents per bag, which decreased customer usage by 92 percent. The goal was to reduce usage by 50 percent. IKEA completely phased out plastic bags in its U.S. stores in October 2008.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

8 responses

  1. Here is one of several studies about the lack of impact from the SF bag ban. It was conducted by the activist group Use-Less-Stuff.

    Not sure if I have ever seen a report documenting litter rates but the City has been very hush about any improvements in clean up costs or other goals such as reducing downtime at MRF.

    Basically for every ban passed to date not city has produced a progress report.

    Only independent activists such as ULS have actually taken that on.

    1. Interesting. I have to admit I didn’t even know the ban had gone into effect. Most of the stores I go to still offer plastic bags by default. I bring a re-usable 95% of the time so didn’t really think about it the last time I was at a major store.

  2. Regarding Ireland: Of course the store founder has ‘become a big, big enthusiast’, his bag purchasing requirements went down 94%. That’s money going directly back into the bottom line.

    What didn’t get noticed there is why they had to RAISE the tax. Usage went DOWN as expected per “environmental externality” root reasoning for the tax. That means revenue followed suite and they had to make up for that shortfall.

    So… The more “Greenies” get their way, the more it will cost on a never ending, ever inflating, tax on something we no longer use!! Go figure…

    Anybody remember brown paper bags? All you have to do is ask for them. Ocean, landfill, stream damage mitigated. Root cause solved. All with a renewable resource made from Mother Nature herself.

    Someone will figure out how to tax her next.

    1. Actually, paper bags are not environmentally friendly either. According to Don’t Trash Nevada (

      –Paper sacks generate 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.
      –It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Energy to produce the bags (in British thermal units): plastic bags: 594 BTU; paper bags: 2511 BTU.
      –Current research demonstrates that paper in today’s landfills does not degrade or break down at a substantially faster rate than plastic does. —In fact, nothing completely degrades in modern landfills due to the lack of water, light, oxygen, and other important elements that are necessary for the degradation process to be completed.

      I was told years ago by a friend who worked for a pest control company that cock roaches like to lay their eggs in paper bags. I discovered the hard way it is true.

      Of course the problem with plastic bags is trash cans. What bags are the most environmentally friendly ones on the market that we can line our trash cans with?

      1. Ah yes… But from that same website… Did you know plastic bags can take 1,000 years to decompose whereas paper bags take about a month to decompose? The debate over whether plastic or paper bags are better for the environment has a long history and is often rekindled each time we check out at the grocery store when we hear that familiar question: paper or plastic?

        Plastic was the mantra word in the late seventies and as such had billions of $$$ poured into its’ technology. If paper were to be the “new” thing, billions of $$$ would be poured into making it more affordable, less polluting, and more resource friendly.

        Reusable bags are indeed a good alternative, but they have their set of drawbacks also. Depending on the material, they can rot, mold, or deteriorate rapidly. They require washing and/or maintenance which requires energy also. Convenience is low due to storage and “take-along” requirements. Once used to their limit, were back to trash/recycle questions.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating paper or reusable necessarily. My personal preference would be hemp bags in either reusable or disposable formats. But we all know where that conversation leads to.

        Yeah, go ahead and “inhale” hemp Senator… see what that does for you. I’ll be waiting with the Aleve when you’re ready!

        And still… My main concern is the taxation that will be relied upon by government. The tax idea is a “long term revenue-negative”(my term) program that will only require an increase in tax for every decrease in use of plastic bags. Then, at some point, we are literally paying a tax on something that no longer is an issue.

        And this issue is clouded over in the argument about which material is better so that we lose focus of the taxation and let it go to our children and their children. I am really trying to make this a better place for them and why I comment on both fronts here.

  3. I love the idea of charging 20 cents per plastic bag. It will really encourage people to re-use and bring in their own bags. Right now, stores are encouraging people to bring in their own bags by entering them into raffles and giving small discounts, but I think this plan will have the most significant impact. Have you considered creating a poll to get your reader’s opinions? I find them helpful and fun for voting too!

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