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Seattle's Bag-User Fee Spurs Backlash

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Seattle's Bag-User Fee Spurs Backlash

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Seattle's Bag-User Fee Spurs Backlash

Seattle's Bag-User Fee Spurs Backlash

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The Seattle City Council has voted to start requiring grocery stores to charge a 20 cent "user fee" for every plastic bag. But many people call the council's actions heavy-handed and the food industry is trying to repeal the measure.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Pity the plastic shopping bag - once a modern convenience, now an environmental villain. The non-biodegradable bags have been banned in San Francisco, and now Seattle is trying to discourage the use of the bags. It is levying a $.20 fee. But, as NPR's Martin Kaste tells us, the city's new policy is running into a surprising amount of resistance.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you for coming.

MARTIN KASTE: Seattle supermarkets have become the scene of some unusual political theater. Here outside the Thriftway, for example, there's a woman wearing a suit made of old plastic bags.

(Soundbite of plastic bags rustling)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: Is that warm?

Ms. MICHELLE GAITHER(PH) (Cool Moms): I'm not fully encased in it, so, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: So tell me your name.

Ms. GAITHER: Michelle Gaither.

KASTE: Gaither is a member of Cool Moms, one of the groups campaigning against the bags. Another mom uses the presence of the plastic bag monster to create a teachable moment.

Unidentified Woman #2: And it ends up in the water, and it ends up in the ocean. And dolphins don't like it, and fish don't like it.

Unidentified Child: Why do fish don't…

KASTE: Last month, it looked as if Seattle environmentalists had won their battle against the bag monster. The city council imposed a $.20 fee on all disposable bags, as well as a ban on to-go containers made of foam. But that victory may be fleeting.

Mr. ABRAHAM SALAZAR (Petitioner): Hello. Are you guys voters? Would you like to sign to put the grocery bag fee to a vote?

KASTE: Outside a nearby Safeway, Abraham Salazar gathers signatures to put the bag fee to a city-wide vote. He's paid up to $2 per signature. The petition drive is being paid for by business interests, including the American Chemistry Council, which represents bag makers. Salazar says people have been eager to sign.

Mr. SALAZAR: A lot of people are more opposed to the shopping bag fee than you would think from a progressive city like Seattle.

KASTE: Eric Slauson(ph) signs the petition. He says he doesn't like the city council's judgment that people who use plastic bags are being un-ecological.

Mr. ERIC SLAUSON(PH): We never throw away our plastic bags. We reuse them for everything around the house, our cats, our baby, everything else, you know, to clean up. So, recycle, reuse, right?

KASTE: People in Seattle tend to resent the implication that they're not being green enough, and the local grocery store association is keying in to that resentment. The Washington food industry, as it's called, is co-sponsoring the petition drive. The grocers say they would rather reward people a few cents at a time for bringing in reusable bags, and they say the city's approach of imposing a fee is too heavy-handed.

It's an argument that surprises Brady Montz. He's the chair of the local Sierra Club, and he says some of his members thought the bag fee was too soft.

Mr. BRADY MONTZ (President, Sierra Club, Seattle): They want to go stronger. They want it banned. And, you know, we're trying to talk those people down.

KASTE: Montz says the bag fee is all about letting people decide.

Mr. MONTZ: We're not controlling what people can and can't do. If you want to use it, use it. If it has a cost, pay it. You expose the cost to people, then they can make their own decision about it. At this time, is it worth it for me to buy it, yes or no?

KASTE: But there are plenty of Seattleites who see the fee - or the tax, as opponents call it - as an imposition, not a choice. The Grocer's Association says the signatures are coming in fast. And if it collects enough, the bag fee won't take effect until voters have their say.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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