Seattle bag ban, tote tax, loopy law

Despite my flippant title, I do respect the motives behind the recent Seattle City Council’s vote to tax plastic bags. I carry reusable bags in my car. Heck, sometimes I even remember to take them in to the store. I’ve also knit a couple of string bags to use and give as gifts, and plan to knit more. Generating less trash is a laudable goal for many reasons, the climate is only one. I would support an outright ban on stores, any store, offering plastic or paper bags.

Nevertheless, I’ll sign the petition to repeal the law. Why? I oppose the law for several reasons, and wrote Councilmember Tim Burgess to say so.

  1. It treats people as children instead of enlisting us as allies
  2. The tax doesn’t apply to all plastic bags. Department stores can still offer them, and paper bags are not being taxed.
  3. Laws should be passed for important issues that there aren’t better alternatives for. One law for one bit of trash?
  4. It’s a regressive tax
  5. Unintended consequences will likely include green backlash.

I’m not a child. I’m capable of reason and learning. Given simple, sustainable alternatives I’m willing to make changes. Indeed, there is a grassroots movement away from plastic or paper bags to reusable bags. Passing a tax when the people themselves are making the change is insulting, dispiriting, and makes me feel very very contrary. “Double bag that, please.”

Since bags are not being banned, just taxed, the people who don’t want to make the change, won’t. The people who are willing to, will anyway. So, how, exactly does the tax help? And will people really notice an extra dollar on a bill of say 100.00? Will the cashier have to say “you could have saved 1.00 by bringing your own bags?”

More and more stores offer branded reusable bags. One has to be nuts to think stores won’t want to encourage that over plastic or paper sacks. Stores will want us to use them, and we will want to use them, because they’re easier to transport groceries in, and, because, to be honest, the peer pressure to be green in Seattle is simply brutal.

It is unfair that department stores are exempted from this tax. If plastic bags are bad, they’re bad, right? And the bags I get from Target and Nordstrom’s are much heavier than the ones from Safeway.

Not only will the tax probably have little effect on limiting this one subset of one class of landfill object, thing in our landfills, but it doesn’t touch paper bags which are a much larger part of landfills. Yes, four of five bags are plastic. But, interestingly, paper bags take 4 times as much energy to produce, contribute to air pollution in their manufacturing and recycling, and still have to be transported, just like plastic bags. Since they are heaving and bulkier than plastic bags, they must take proportionately more energy to transport than plastic bags. (Ref: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2007/10/03/GR2007100301385.html?referrer=emaillink.)

“But, wait,” you say, “plastic isn’t biodegradeable.” True fact. But then again, nothing is in modern landfills. So, the answer is to include paper sacks, right? Riiiiight. Washington State. Can you say “forest products?”

So, one of the unintended consequences will be our consumption (and disposal) of paper sacks goes up, as does the volume in the landfill.

There are significant argument against banning plastic bags. One might disagree and come to a different conclusion than I do, but both sides have legitimate criticisms of the other. When Council member Godden says “it is really about caring about the world that we are leaving to our children,” she is insulting the people who disagree with her. It’s a particularly lazy and subtly nasty way of squelching dissent.

This law addresses only one subset of one piece of environmental damaging habits, and not even effectively, and was passed before giving time for the people ourselves to decide for ourselves by making changes out of personal commitment rather than enforced taxation. The people who will pay the tax will be the lazy (who cares, right?) and the uninformed. The same people who won’t make the change if the tax never existed.

Laws should be reserved for legislating peaceable community cohesion when law is the only option. They should be passed with an eye to posterity. How important is the issue when measure against all the other contemporary issues.

No, this bag tax is another one of those laws passed because it was easy, because it feels good and right, and lets us all feel that something important and substantial is “being done.” The most important work facing us takes real sweat and practice. Like simply driving less, shopping less often, buying few things that need to be manufactured, transported, purchased, stored, then trashed.

If a law feels good, it’s probably a dumb law. And the bag tax is a dumb law.

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