Politics & Government

Tacoma eyes possible shopping bag restrictions

Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts a customer’s groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag Monday. The city of Tacoma is asking residents whether plastic bag use should be restricted or banned because of environmental impacts and concerns over litter.
Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts a customer’s groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag Monday. The city of Tacoma is asking residents whether plastic bag use should be restricted or banned because of environmental impacts and concerns over litter. dkoepfler@thenewstribune

Attention Tacoma shoppers: You might have to bag your groceries differently sometime next year.

City officials are considering becoming the 14th community in Washington to adopt shopping bag restrictions. They started taking the public’s temperature in an online survey last month. More than 1,300 people have responded so far.

“More people than not are saying the city should take some action,” said Kristin Lynett with Tacoma’s office of environmental policy and sustainability.

Thirteen Washington communities have already banned plastic grocery-style bags. Most require a five-cent fee for large paper sacks. Tacoma officials say they don’t yet know what shape their rules will take.

“We don’t want to presume a ban on plastic and keeping paper,” Lynett said. “We want to decrease the use of both. They both have more significant environmental issues with them.”

While plastic bags can clutter the landscape and end up in Puget Sound, paper bags also have environmental costs, Lynett said. Though often made of recyclable materials, their bulk means shipping them creates more greenhouse gas emissions than it takes to deliver an equal number of their lightweight plastic counterparts.

We don’t want to presume a ban on plastic and keeping paper. We want to decrease the use of both. They both have more significant environmental issues with them.

Kristin Lynett with Tacoma’s office of environmental policy and sustainability

About a dozen people attended a Sustainable Tacoma Commission meeting last week to comment on possible bag restrictions. Among them was Casey Cowles, owner-operator of the Minuteman Press franchise on 38th Street and a board member for the Sixth Avenue Business District.

It’s about the appearance of action, not about actual environmental stewardship.

Poly Bags LLC co-owner Michael Johnson

He said several business owners along Sixth Avenue use plastic bags in daily transactions. He worries that shoppers could take their business outside of Tacoma if the city adopts a bag ban.

“I have a fundamental problem with enacting social changes using fees, legislation and regulations,” he said. “I don’t think Americans like being told what to do.”

PLASTIC BAGS MAR MARINE ENVIRONMENT

Though plastic shopping bags are less than 1 percent of Tacoma’s waste stream, environmental activists say plastic bags have a disproportionate impact on Puget Sound wildlife.

Ken Campbell has been a member of the South Sound Surfrider Foundation — an offshoot of an organization founded in California by surfers concerned about protecting Malibu beaches — for more than six years. In that time, he’s attended more than a few beach cleanups. Without fail, a South Sound Surfrider volunteer will find the remnants of at least one plastic bag in a beach sweep, Campbell said.

Plastic bags are never the bulk of marine or landfill debris because they are so lightweight, Campbell said. But the effects on wildlife and the food chain is profound. Sunlight can break down plastics, he said, and plastic bags are particularly vulnerable because they are thin.

Once plastic gets into the microplastic stage, what studies are showing now is it’s entering the food chain.

Ken Campbell, a volunteer with the South Sound Surfrider Foundation

“They break into small pieces of plastic very quickly,” Campbell said. “Once plastic gets into the microplastic stage, what studies are showing now is it’s entering the food chain.”

Fish and shellfish can accidentally ingest tiny pieces of plastic as they would any other food source they come across, Campbell said.

Lynett, with the city of Tacoma, said plastic bags also are part of the city’s litter problem.

“We’ve all seen them stuck in tree limbs or bushes,” Lynett said. “They can get into storm grates and catch basins.”

Lynett cited a litter study from California, which said before San Jose banned plastic bags in 2012, city workers found 3.6 plastic bags per catch basin each year. After the ban, the city found 0.4 plastic bags per catch basin.

IN DEFENSE OF PLASTIC BAGS

Tacoma does not have a plastic bag problem, said Poly Bags LLC co-owner Michael Johnson. He drives Tacoma’s streets every day and said he picks up stray bags — on the rare occasion he finds them.

Johnson says plastic bag bans are “about the appearance of action, not about actual environmental stewardship.” Traditional plastic bags are the most environmentally friendly choice at the grocery counter, he said.

“A thousand plastic bags will fit in your lap. A thousand paper bags will fill up your entire desk,” Johnson said.

Disposable bags are also better than the durable reusable bags governments encourage people to use, he said. The reusable ones are often made from foreign oil and shipped across vast oceans before they even get here, he said. His bags are made from a byproduct of domestically produced natural gas, Johnson said.

Store owners have raised another concern: That encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags could lead to an increase in shoplifting.

In 2013, Seattle Public Utilities released a survey of business owners, which said more than one in five saw increased shoplifting because of the plastic bag ban. Store owners said it’s difficult to track inventory when shoppers bring reusable bags to the stores. A Grocery Outlet in Lake City said more hand baskets were being stolen from its store after plastic bags were removed.

Donna Baker, owner of Dightman’s Bible Book Center in South Tacoma, said banning plastic bags means she would have to find a space to stock paper bags, yet another expense on her balance sheet. Concerns about where plastic bags end up do not sway her.

Fewer than 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled, according to a 2010 study for Green Cities California. But even if they don’t end up in the recycling bin, the bags have second lives, Baker said.

“I take my lunch to work every day in those bags I brought from the store,” Baker said. “They are getting reused.”

BAG BANS IN THURSTON COUNTY

Terri Thomas, waste reduction supervisor for Thurston County Solid Waste, said shoppers there seem to be adjusting to the bag restrictions the county and its largest cities put in place in July 2014.

But since the ban was enacted, support appears to have slightly declined. Before the ban, about 50 percent of people who answered an online poll said they supported a plastic-bag ban. Four months after the ban took effect, about 46 percent of people said the county should keep or expand the ban, while 54 percent said the ban should be eliminated.

Now the county is working to hire a vendor to craft a scientific survey and write a report about the effects of the plastic bag ban.

Thomas doubts that the ban is prompting shoppers to take their business elsewhere.

“If you are going to buy three bags of groceries, it’s going to cost you 15 cents if you want paper bags,” Thomas said. “Is your time worth 15 cents? And is your gas use, if you drive somewhere else, worth 15 cents?”

She also isn’t convinced by arguments that plastic bags get reused. A family of four people would use between 1,600 and 2,000 plastic bags a year if they do not opt for paper or bring their own.

“Chances are they are not reusing all of their bags, as they may think,” Thomas said. “It’s pretty hard to line that many trash cans.”

Of 13 communities in Washington state that have bag restriction, all have outright banned the use of plastic bags. The bans do not extend to bags such as those used to package meats, bag deli purchases or protect newspapers from the elements. Twelve of the communities say that thicker plastic bags, like the ones department stores use, are allowed while thin, grocery-style bags are not.

Bainbridge Island adopted a plastic bag ban in 2012. Since then, residents have become used to bringing reusable bags to the store, said city spokeswoman Kelli Stickney.

“Bainbridge Island is pretty green-leaning,” Stickney said. “Being surrounded by water, I think the idea of banning plastic bags and the impact they have on the marine environment, really made sense to a lot of people.”

Elsewhere, some communities have backtracked on bag restrictions. Last year, the Fort Collins, Colorado, City Council approved a 5-cent fee for all disposable bags, but repealed it two months later, after a group of citizens collected enough signatures to force a special election.

The Huntington Beach, California, council also repealed its ban on plastic bags this year after voters elected new council members in favor of repealing the ban. Environmental groups are suing the city because it neglected to study the environmental impact of removing a plastic bag ban.

Other cities have considered bag bans and did not follow through with them or decided to instead increase recycling education. Baltimore’s mayor vetoed a proposed ban on single-use bags because of her concern about the effect on low-income residents.

Some communities exempt those on public assistance from paying fees for paper bags. Tacoma’s online poll assumes the poor will be exempt from paying fees for bags.

Nick Luu, manager of Hong Kong Supermarket in Tacoma’s Lincoln District, said he’s OK with a plastic bag ban as long as all stores have to follow the rule.

“It’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the environment.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

The city will collect comment through an online survey at cityoftacoma.org/ShoppingBags through Jan. 15.

  Comments