MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And to another pressing matter in Seattle now. The plastic bag industry is spending well over a million dollars to fight a local ballot initiative. At issue is a 20 cent surcharge the city wants to put on grocery bags to discourage their use. And that fee would apply to paper and plastic. But it's the plastic industry that's most concerned about the fee, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE: Heather Trim carries a vial of seawater in her purse.

Ms. HEATHER TRIM (Volunteer, Seattle Green Bag Campaign): So, this is a sample from the North Pacific. It was taken last year.

KASTE: The water comes from the infamous garbage gyre, a giant layer of garbage particles that's slowly riding the currents around the Hawaiian Islands. The water in the vial looks a little bit like used dishwater.

Ms. TRIM: It's cloudy because those are the little, little teeny bits of plastic bags and other - those kind of plastics that are broken down and you can only see them with a microscope. So the problem is this gyre is like a big eddy. Things get in and they don't get out. And unfortunately, our plastics are accumulating out there.

KASTE: And she says that's why she's volunteering here at the Green Bag Campaign working the phones and making signs to try to convince Seattleites to vote for the 20-cent surcharge on bags.

(Soundbite of truck)

KASTE: At Seattle supermarkets, an estimated 20 to 30 percent of customers already bring their own bags, at least some of the time. That's higher than the rest of the country, but it's not nearly high enough for the environmentalists. They say money is the best way to change habits. Carrying her groceries in plastic, Jane Petrich admits that the surcharge would make a difference to her.

Would you use the recyclable…

Ms. JANE PETRICH: I carry recyclable bags in my car every day — always with me. And I, 80 percent of the time, forget to take them in with me. But they're in my car.

KASTE: Well, if you had that 20-cent fee waiting for you, maybe you'd remember?

Ms. PETRICH: I would remember for sure. Yeah, yeah.

KASTE: Still, Petrich opposes the surcharge. She considers it a tax, and she says it'll fall most heavily on the poor. That's the argument coming from the plastic bag industry, too.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man: A cleaner Seattle is something we all want, but a tax on grocery bags isn't what we need in this economy. Say no to new taxes.

KASTE: This radio ad was paid for by a group calling itself the Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax, which is funded by the American Chemistry Council. At last count, that trade association had given $1.4 million to the campaign for radio, direct mail and full page ads in the local paper.

Mr. STEVE RUSSELL (Managing Director, Plastics Division, American Chemistry Council): It is an important battle because we know that people in Seattle care deeply about the environment and we do too.

KASTE: Steve Russell is managing director of the Plastics Division at the American Chemistry Council.

Mr. RUSSELL: And we think that there are ways to achieve what we all agree as a goal of more recycled material that doesn't punish people on fixed incomes or people less able to pay those kind of fees.

KASTE: The little polling that's been done in Seattle indicates that most voters agree with the industry on this point - they don't like the surcharge. But most of them also agree that the surcharge would have an effect. At 20 cents a pop, they tell pollsters they would try to bring their own bags.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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