Seattle voters deciding on 20-cent grocery bag fee

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

SEATTLE -- Voters in eco-conscious Seattle were deciding Tuesday whether to pay a 20-cent fee for every paper or plastic bag they get from supermarkets, drug stores and convenience stores. City leaders had passed an ordinance to charge the bag fee, which was to start in January. But the plastics industry bankrolled a referendum to put the question to voters in Tuesday's election. Plastic bag makers have lobbied hard to defeat the fee, outspending opponents about 15 to 1. Supporters argue the fee would encourage more reusable bags, cut down on pollution and waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Also in Seattle, unpopular Mayor Greg Nickels faced seven challengers in his bid for a third term. Nickels, while prominent nationally for his initiatives to make the city greener, has been dogged locally by criticism of a sometimes heavy-handed style and of the city's response to a December snowstorm that paralyzed Seattle for nearly two weeks. The top two vote-getters advance to the November general election.

The election was held entirely by mail, with ballots postmarked on Tuesday considered valid, so close races could remain unresolved until next week.

If the bag fee fails in an eco-conscious city like Seattle, observers say it will be a tough sell elsewhere.

The plastics industry's aggressive campaign against the fee is part of a national campaign to stave off bag restrictions.

In California, bag manufacturers successfully sued cities that banned plastic bags.

Several states from Colorado to Texas to Virginia debated bag bans or fees this year, but no statewide ban or fee has been enacted. Washington, D.C., passed a 5-cent fee on paper or plastic bags, and the Outer Banks region in North Carolina banned plastic bags this year. But New York City dropped a proposed 5-cent bag fee in June, and Philadelphia rejected a plastic bag ban.

In Seattle, the Progressive Bag Affiliates, an arm of Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, has given the bulk of money to defeat the bag fee.

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