Op-Ed: Plastic Bags are Public Enemy #1, Says City Council


A tent city packs up for a move at St. Joseph's on Capitol Hill (Photo: MvB)

Word power! Bête noire is a French expression meaning, literally, “black beast”–it’s a beast of burden, and it carries your most virulent detestation. For example, for the Seattle City Council, plastic bags are their bête noire. Back in 2008, in the depths of the recession, the Council looked around and decided that a $0.20 fee on plastic grocery bags was what was called for.

A year later, Seattle voters disagreed. (Now to some minds, right-thinking voters can dismiss this result, because it was “purchased” by Big Plastic. As with Costco’s funding of advertisements for I-1183, the results of the election are purely a matter of money, with Seattle’s avaricious voters swiveling to wherever the gravy train sets up. Well, you know, money in politics! What next?)

So it was fairly soon afterward that the Council started making noises about banning plastic bags outright. Last week I got a robo-poll call testing the waters on a plastic bag ban, and this week the Seattle Times reveals how the bag-ban conversation is percolating:

Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin said Bellingham’s ordinance seems to enjoy more widespread support in part because it is less complicated than the one passed by the Seattle City Council. In addition to banning plastic bags, it charges a 5-cent fee for paper bags that goes to stores to reimburse them for the costs.

Don’t get me wrong–I think that is exactly the right strategy. If plastic bags present the irremediable harm to the environment we are told, then a ban (not a sin tax) is what’s called for. It is simpler, and it is a straightforward demand for responsible behavior.

On the other hand, is this the best use of the Council’s time just now? Even if you want to weigh just environmental concerns? Times commenter Meinert (I’ll assume this is Dave Meinert) would argue no:

That said, this is not the biggest environmental or general issue in front of the Council. Transit and storm water and contaminated runoff are more serious problems. Add to that the open crack dealing and rising crime on downtown streets. And of course we have a horrible business climate, and need some solutions to health insurance (many of which could be handled locally). Much harder, less sexy issues for politicians to try to handle.

Should we ban plastic bags? Yes. Is this the most important issue in front of the City Council? No way. […] I’m sure there’s a German word for taking small steps on large issues and then congratulating yourself for being a leader. That would be a perfect word to use in local politics.

That word is not responsible governance.

This Council, under Conlin’s leadership, consistently fails to communicate a sense of priority. I have had occasion to bang on about the city’s decaying infrastructure and the Council’s blind eye to the scope of the problem, but it’s also true of the Council’s response to homelessness.

You recall that back in April, Conlin was telling you that homelessness in Seattle had decreased 15 percent (based on a one-night count), so there was no real hurry to figure out what to do with tent cities. This October, the Council decided what to do: create the opportunity for more tent cities.

But at least you can feel proud of the Council’s green credentials, if that’s the way your sympathies lie? Not if you take into account the Council’s support for the two largest public works projects in the area (the new, larger 520 bridge and downtown tunnel).

In both instances, the Council–with the beleaguered exception of Mike O’Brien–has decided not to push for replacing some car capacity with transit capacity. Conlin went so far as to argue that the tunnel was “the green alternative,” although only the I-5/Surface/Transit option helped lower greenhouse gas emissions, per WSDOT’s SDEIS study.

The only mitigating circumstance is that the state has made it clear it doesn’t care what Seattle thinks about these projects–we are going to get more cars come hell or high water:

Just as the federal government released its annual index of greenhouse gases, showing a steady increase over the past 21 years, the International Energy Agency warned that we are on the path to 11-degree warming if we don’t curb emissions now.

Do you see what I mean? One of the benefits of a bag ban, of course, is that it saves on the petroleum used to make them. In this case, with the Council amenable to spending billions of dollars to increase or conserve single-vehicle-occupancy capacity, it’s a bit like ordering milkshakes for every meal, but foregoing the whipped cream on top–just once, at lunch–because you’re on a diet.

One thought on “Op-Ed: Plastic Bags are Public Enemy #1, Says City Council

  1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Seattle, make me your leader, and on Day 1, I will eliminate the City Council outright.

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