Politics & Government

Plastic grocery bags on their way out in Tacoma

Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag in December.
Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag in December. Staff file, 2015

In a year, Tacomans won’t get thin plastic bags at checkout in grocery stores and other places they shop in the city.

The Tacoma City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday to ban the plastic bags after hours of discussion and the defeat of a substitute proposal that would have charged a five-cent fee for a bag.

Pieces of that substitute, authored by Councilman Joe Lonergan, remain alive. The council added some of his ideas, including an exemption for traveling shows and events at the Tacoma Dome and other meeting spaces, to the ban it later adopted.

Even so, Lonergan voted against the ban of thin plastic bags, defined as those less than 2.25 millimeters thick. He was the sole dissenter among council members.

Environmentalists, some retailers and the Northwest Grocery Association stood behind the ban, which is patterned after laws in Bellingham and more than a dozen other cities across Washington. In addition to banning thin plastic bags, the law will require retailers to charge at least five cents for paper bags and other carryout bags. That fee will be kept by the retailer.

Holly Chisa, a representative of the grocers group, pleaded with the council Tuesday to follow the Bellingham example — one she said retailers across the state are familiar with — to make it easier for them to comply.

“It’s an issue for all of the stores here in the community, so we’d ask you to have that consideration and use the model we’re comfortable with,” Chisa said.

David Schroedel of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber spoke Tuesday in favor of Lonergan’s proposed plastic-bag fee, which also would have exempted small businesses not subject to the city’s business and occupation tax.

If thin plastic bags are banned, Schroedel said, “At the end of the day … retailers who choose to use plastic bags will move to a thicker plastic bag that has more weight that will still get thrown away and will still end up in our waste stream.”

But many others who commented before the council vote were supportive of banning the bags for environmental reasons, citing dangers to marine wildlife and the proliferation of plastic bag litter in parks and streets.

Sarah Chessman, a member of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission who said she is a conservation psychologist, said levying a fee won’t change behavior, if the goal is to end the use of plastic.

“As a person who cares about behavior change, the substitute ordinance is not going to be effective,” Chessman said. “The underlying ordinance is definitely the way to go if you want to promote behavior change, and it will spread beyond simple plastic bags.”

Lonergan’s proposal, which was discussed at length by the council and the public before being voted down, would have sent the nickel fee back to the city to pay for implementing the program. His measure had support from Councilman Conor McCarthy, Councilman Marty Campbell and Mayor Marilyn Strickland, all of whom ultimately voted in favor of the ban.

“I think we share the same goal of wanting to reduce the number of plastic bags we all use,” Strickland said. “Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Lonergan reflected Wednesday that in spite of the fact that Tacoma has been discussing the issue for years, he believes questions remain unanswered about the environmental impact of banning thin plastic bags.

“I think at the end of the day the substitute may have been too complicated,” he said. “I still contend that we haven’t actually solved the issue from an environmental standpoint. We’ve banned these thinner plastic bags in the city but not elsewhere, and sure that may have an impact on how many plastic bags are distributed within the city, but many of our citizens don’t shop in the city, including myself and many of my neighbors.”

At Councilwoman Victoria Woodards’ suggestion, the council added a requirement for annual reports on how many of what types of bags are sold by retailers after the law takes effect. The hope is the reports will show whether the law is helping change shoppers’ behavior.

The city delayed implementation of the bag ban until next July to give retailers time to prepare. The city also is expected to reach out to low-income communities to offer reusable bags and other help.

Lyn Lowe, who along with her husband Ken has owned the North Tacoma Grocery Outlet on Sixth Avenue for 17 years, said Wednesday she has surveyed her customers about a bag ban and got mixed reactions.

“Our heart is with our customers and how they feel,” Lowe said. “I do think this can work going forward. We have colleagues who have this ordinance already in place, like in Portland and other jurisdictions, and we’ve seen how it works and all it is is getting used to a new system.”

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud