Politics & Government

Tacoma plastic bag ban advances, but with help for families on cost

Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag in December of 2015.
Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag in December of 2015. The News Tribune

Tacoma’s proposed ban on disposable bags took a step forward late Wednesday, but with an adjustment intended to help low-income households prepare for a change that could have them paying a few extra nickels every time they buy groceries.

The vote by a City Council committee that oversees environmental issues keeps the plastic bag ban on track to take effect by the start of next year.

“I’m very happy to support this,” Councilman Anders Ibsen said. “Let’s get it done.”

City Council members and city employees have been considering a bag ban since 2012, when one in Seattle took effect. Several business, and some residents who prefer the convenience of plastic bags and like to reuse them, have repeatedly voiced strong opposition to it.

“Shelf this ridiculous plan and come up with something everyone can live with and will help our environment,” said Michael Johnson, a co-owner of Tacoma bag manufacturer Poly Bag.

He was joined in opposing the ban by a representative from WestRock, a pulp mill that manufactures paper bags at the Port of Tacoma.

Despite the critique from business, the committee passed the ban by a 3-1 vote, which sends the measure to the full City Council.

It would prohibit stores from handing out most disposable plastic bags and require them to charge at least a nickel to customers who use paper bags. The goal is to get Tacoma residents to bring their own reusable bags to stores, which proponents say would limit litter that drifts into Puget Sound and eliminate more than 500 tons of nondegradable waste from the city’s landfill.

The committee had indicated in February that it was ready for the ban, but this week’s meeting had some suspense.

Councilman Conor McCarthy voted against it, saying he wanted a task force to study it further. He wanted to find a compromise that might work for the ban’s opponents.

“If the most urgent effort is to get community buy-in on changing behavior, it’s often hard to get buy-in when you don’t give (opponents) a say,” he said.

For a time, Councilman Keith Blocker appeared to be on the fence. He recognized that well-off families would buy reusable bags and shop with them. The ordinance also waives the 5-cent bag fee for families receiving food stamps and other kinds of assistance.

But he worried that low-income families who don’t receive government assistance would not buy the reusable bags and would wind up paying the paper bag fee over and over.

“It is a good thing to do for the environment, but the reality is low-income people end up paying more in the long run,” he said.

Blocker joined Ibsen and Councilman Ryan Mello in voting for the ban after they adjusted the ordinance by requiring the city to carry out an outreach campaign to low-income and minority communities.

The measure could go to the full council in late May or June. If it passes, the city plans to phase it in over several months, giving stores time to use up their stocks of disposable bags and shoppers to buy reusable ones.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary