Community Post

CAMP and the plastic bag ban proposal

Danny Westneat’s column in today’s Seattle Times discusses the plastic bag fee/tax proposal, on the ballot at Referendum 1.  A lot of coverage to date has focused on the involvement of the petrochemical industry, which has spent something in the range of $1.3 million on opposing the ban.

Politics make strange bedfellows, and in this case our local Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP) also opposed Ref. 1 based on what they see as a possible harm to low-income consumers.  Westneat spoke with their new executive director, Andrea Caupain.

“We wanted to get ahead of the issue and ask: How will this affect our clients, the low-income?” Caupain says. “We hadn’t seen anyone look at this in depth, only people making arguments to support their side.”

CAMP tried an experiment. Its food bank handed out hundreds of reusable canvas tote bags.

Patrons were told to use them when picking up food, and that the agency would stop providing paper or plastic bags due to the expense of the coming bag fee (this was back when the City Council first approved the fee).

For six months, staffers tracked what happened.

“It was not good,” she says.

CAMP staffers observed – not surprisingly – that few of their clients brought back the bags regularly. When asked why not, “usually the explanation had something to do with the struggles of being poor.”

If you are moving a lot, homeless or borderline homeless, or working long hours to make ends meet, keeping track of a bag is a low priority.  I get that.  

But I personally think it’s short-sited for CAMP to make the leap from “our clients did not bring our bags back” to opposing a measure for the environment.  I’m disappointed that they took this position.

After all, evidence suggests that low- and moderate-income households have the most to lose from climate change and environmental degradation.  Wealthier households can buffer themselves; wealthier neighborhoods can spend resources on clean-up (or secure resources with political power).  

For a visual example, take a walk around the block in the CD.  Odds are, you’ll see some litter.  I regularly find plastic bags (“urban tumbleweeds”) resting in my yard and street.  When I visit friends in Viewridge or Greenlake, I don’t see trash on their streets.

Instead of opposing the measure, think about how a bag ban could be used to enhance the well-being of low-income communities.  A local non-partisan think-tank, the Washington Budget & Policy Center (disclosure:  I’m on their community advisory board), has been examining equity issues in climate change.  They conclude, “To protect the interest of people with lower- and moderate-incomes, [revenue] should be invested … for the public good, particularly to off-set the cost to people with lower- and moderate-incomes.”  

For instance, bag ban revenue could be used to subtract 2% from the grocery bill of anyone buying groceries using their card from the Basic Food Program.  If that person had to buy a bag, the $.20 for every $10 would more or less cover the cost of the bag.  Someone who brings a reusable bag or is able to carry items home without a bag would get cheaper groceries and be better off.  

CAMP, I urge you to rethink this position.  CD residents, I urge you to vote for Ref. 1.  

And that’s my two – or twenty – cents.

0 thoughts on “CAMP and the plastic bag ban proposal

  1. My understanding is that food banks would be exempted from the .20/bag fee anyway

  2. Great Post JRo. I’d like to move it to the home page, but first can you change it’s designation to “opinion”?


  3. I opposed this tax because it will do nothing to help the environment. It’s just Nickels in the Greg’s pocket. Why not reward those who bring their own bag like Safeway currently does?

  4. Uh, it’ll help the environment by providing a disincentive to using plastic bags. Is that really so difficult to understand? Plenty of other cities are doing it. It has nothing to do with “Nickels in Greg’s pocket”.

  5. eating less beef and drinking less milk will do much more for the environment than reducing plastic bag use. methane is produced in large quantities by cows, and plays a much larger part in global warming than does the carbon dioxide produced in the creation of plastic bags.

  6. Fine, but does that mean you shouldn’t address other issues, too? If we only do one thing at a time we’re not going to get very far with environmental issues (that is, the problems we’ve created will catch up with us long before we’ve had a chance to fix them at that pace).

    Also, there’s the blight of plastic bags stuck in trees… I can look out my window right now and see several fluttering away in a tree across the street from my house.

    As far as the “tax” aspect – you’re already paying for the bags you use (how do you think Safeway, QFC, etc. can afford to give you money back for bringing a bag?). This just makes it explicit, and explicit disincentives work far better than hidden ones.

  7. I grew up in Russia during the end of Communist era. No stores gave out bags, ever. You were supposed to bring your own for all the shopping you were going to do. Nobody ever complained and at least there weren’t any plastic bags shrewn all over the streets. The people in this country are spoiled when it comes to bags. There were tiny string bags that can be waddled up into a almost invisible small ball, particularly popular with women who put them into purses, to be out of the way and invisible.

    I have bags I always bring to the store, and each of our two cars has bags in the back. If I bike, I have my backpack to put stuff in. So I never ever use up more then I need. It is good for environment and good for me.

    The poor people who come to get groceries are getting a hand-out. The least they can do is plan on bringing their own bag.

  8. The argument that it’s just too hard for poor people to cope with a change in habit insults their intelligence and capabilities. I work with people who are homeless. Over the years I have seen a cultural change in the group I work with, towards changing their habits to recycle, reduce waste, and protect the environment. It’s the same change, at the same pace, as that of US society at large. Everyone needs to pick up the pace, and the bag fee is a good kick in the rear.

  9. Holland, Germany, and Switzerland have this as well. In Amsterdam you can purchase a plastic bag out of a vending machine if you forgot yours at home, otherwise everyone brings their own. I lived there for 6 months and never saw the vending machine being used.

  10. Despite the fact that I have yet to get with the program and start reusing bags. I’m hoping under the tax I will. I’d also definitely like to see a reduction, even a slight one, in the aforementioned “urban tumbleweeds”.

    The opposition to this tax is so well funded it seems like it’s a David and Goliath battle, so I doubt it will pass, but I’m hoping it will.

  11. I am voting for the bag tax mostly because the anti-tax radio spots are so incredibly annoying. I get so tired of being talked down to like I’m some sort of child.

  12. I, too, am disappointed by CAMP’s opposition to the bag fee. Yes, there may initially be an impact as people begin to change their habits in bringing bags with them. It’s really a cultural shift that becomes easier as more people start bringing their own bags. I’ve personally experienced this when I moved to Seattle from San Diego. Compact bags, like those being given away by the Green Bag Campaign also help. In the long run it’s one small change that will have an impact on our environment.

    I’m re-posting and updating a comment I made on another article on problems with plastic bags:

    Plastic bags are made from oil, a limited resource already. We use nearly a million plastic and paper bags in the Seattle every day, the vast majority of them plastic. When they’re recycled, they’re “downcycled” into lower quality plastic, and rather than being recycled here, they are often shipped overseas for recycling. But often bags don’t even get recycled. Many end up getting washed out into the ocean where they break into small pieces and are often mistaken by wildlife for food. In the North Pacific Gyre, there is now more plastic than plankton in the water. It’s decimating the albatross population on Midway Island. At the last Ignite, one speaker spoke of her experience with a whale that died after beaching itself on a Pacific Island. The cause of death: a single plastic bag the whale had ingested.

    So, clearly, I support the bag tax. It will help people to consider the costs those bags actually carry. It will likely lead to fewer plastic bags being used. If you’d like more info, you can go to for details.

  13. First off, this is not a BAN on plastic bags…it’s a TAX on plastic bags. This tax isn’t going to eliminate plastic bags. Tax or no tax, people will continue to use plastic…whether it’s a grocery bag, a garbage bag or a container food is packaged in. I think that a lot of people think that just because you add a tax that all of the sudden plastic bags will magically disappear. They tax car purchases, but has that made people stop buying or using cars? NO. If they tax plastic bags will that prevent people from using them? NO. Will it make people use less plastic bags? Maybe.

    Environmentally, I don’t think this tax is going to help much at all. I think the whole global warming issue is a way for all of these “environmental” companies to find a way to try to make money. Who even heard of global warming 10 or 15 years ago? (But, that’s a discussion for a whole other blog). Does paying a tax on the bags actually eliminate the bags? No, I don’t think so. While I use cloth bags most of the time for groceries, I do also get plastic grocery bags. We use the Safeway bags for our garbage. And if you are a cat owner, like me, then you know that those Safeway bags sure are handy for litter box cleaning. I think that if they add a bag tax, a lot of people will just end up buying the thicker and larger Hefty garbage bags. I would think those giant black plastic bags are way less environmentally friendly than the smaller, thinner grocery bags. While I hate using all of this plastic, for some things like garbage and kitty litter, it’s really the best thing to use. Unless they can come up with a soy based/decomposable strong bag that I could scoop kitty litter into, then I’ll continue to use the plastic Safeway bags, tax or no tax.

    For those of you voting for this tax from an environmental standpoint, I think you are backing the wrong issue. You want to eliminate plastic through taxes. Why not put an initiative together to just ban plastic bags. No new tax, just flat out ban them. They did that with the Styrofoam take-out containers, so why not this, too? You’re not going to eliminate plastic bags by charging 20 cents…now if you charge $5 or $10 or $100 per bag…that will for sure eliminate plastic bags. But I’m tired of the government trying to force people into doing things by adding taxes.

    As for the tax/revenue part of the bag issue, I think this is just a way for the city to try to make money. They are using the environmental aspect of it to try to get people on board with the tax.

    I’m voting NO against another unnecessary tax.

  14. I like the flexibility of the bag tax – if I find myself short of bags, either plastic or paper, I can just pay 20 cents a bag to replenish my supply. People who re-use their plastic bags clearly aren’t responsible for the fluttering “decorations” in trees throughout the city. The tax certainly doesn’t stop you from getting bags, just from getting them thoughtlessly.

    If you are serious about switching away from plastic, here are some options for compostable bags:

  15. in my humble opinion.
    Sorry if I sound judgemental. But I’m low income, I bring cloth bags to the food bank, and when I go I see many many people in line who are also carrying some sort of reusable container.

    I dont mind this tax.
    I’ve already seen less bags as trash since the idea has been first talked about.
    .20 isnt alot to pay, its a good way to raise funds and thank you very much but most low income people I’ve ever known have bags they carry with them. Especially if they ride the bus.

    Because people had excuses for being lazy doesnt mean anything.
    Again. I’m sorry if I sound judgemental, but in this time I really feel like the money could be used to actually support the low income they are supposedly fighting for.

    I really feel like saying poor people have a problem bringing bags is ridiculous. if your homeless what do you carry your stuff in?? typically backs, duffels…ahem bags.
    If your riding the bus everywhere and working just to make ends meet than the last thing you want is a plastic bag to tear on a crowded bus.
    People can adapt. I refuse to be treated like a child, or worse a stupid person who is incapable of change.

  16. This is the history from my perspective. Conlin came up with some ideas to either ban plastic bags, or charge fees. As these things normally go, there would have been time to develop and test the ideas and, while some people would not have been happy, we’d probably have a law by now. Instead, the Mayor jumps out in front to get soem press and polarizes everyone. And, the battle lines are drawn. They are drawn by an industry group from out of state who dump tons of money into opposing this.

    I would have preferred a ban on plastic bags at the checkout. And, yeah I do buy biobags and sometimes need hefty bags, but not 20 plastic bags for my weekly shopping. I would have made a more modest charge for paper bags, along with a discount for bringing your own.

    All of that does not matter. I support this bag fee because we need to get started and establish the principle of the thing, especially against big moneyed out of staters who’s sole purpose in life is to use up petro chemicals to produce plastic. The specific regulations can be tweaked, or programs can be started using the money, to deal with negative consequences to people of less means. But, we lose this and we are starting again from worse than where we were.

  17. I don’t understand why some of the above comments are deemed to be “below viewing threshold.” Maybe I’m clueless, but the ones I clicked “show” on do not appear to me to be offensive.

  18. The threshold is, I think, the number of replies to replies. I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with the content of the comment.

  19. “Who even heard of global warming 10 or 15 years ago?”

    That’s more a problem of marketing. In my work at the National Archives branch in Sand Point I’ve come across mentions of global warming in official government documents… from 1965.

    As for using taxes to influence behavior, remember there are only three ways to cause change in society (paraphrased): economic, social, and civil. Social means people just do the right thing because they feel it is right; e.g. bringing their own bags, as I do, to cut down on waste. Civil means the government imposes penalties on behavior; e.g.: making plastic bag distribution illegal and imposing civil or criminal penalties under force of law. This measure is an example of the economic means; e.g.: increasing the cost of a particular behavior in order to discourage or reduce it. I challenge you to define other means by which to peacefully alter societal behavior.

    As far as the city or “environmental companies” making money: Part D of the referendum text explains that 100% of the fee is kept by retailers bringing in gross yearly sales of less than $1 Million; Larger retailers remit 75% to the city – to pay for the administrative overhead and programs for mitigating effects to the poor and food banks. This progressive split is to compensate retailers for the additional accounting burden they will face and, honestly, give them an incentive to support the measure.

  20. hypocrites, it’s better than taxing or banning everything you personally disagree with. you are forcing yourself onto everybody else and then get upset about some stars, countdown to the star tax begins now.

  21. IT’s NOT A TAX!!!!
    That is false advertising by the chemical countries who pumped a million into buying the election. If you bring in a gag you do not get charged.

  22. None of the ‘below threshold’ comments are offensive or have obscenities or call people out or ANYTHING. They are opinions. I understand that the people use it for soem level of community decision making about what is really just wrong, but gosh to use it because you disagree?

  23. The star nazis are just taking full advantage of the fact that scott is not monitoring the site at the level that he was prior to matt’s death. scott used to use his own heavy hand to decide when things would go below the viewing threshold. now that he is out of the way with the whole pesky death issue, users can have free reign over the site to do as they wish. the people who even use the star rating system are petty at best.

  24. Yeah. I thought Lucas might have rights to deal. It’s a lot. We shall cope and I appreciate everyone who is writing. Guess I will walk around my area tomorrow and take some pictures maybe? That’s unfortunately about my speed right now.

  25. It’s not a tax, do not be duped! Let me guess big oil is now infiltrating the local blogs.

  26. This is not a tax! It is a purchase. If you bring in your own bags, you do not pay at all. They will absolutely help the environment. Europe has been doing this for years (well, most of it anyways.) Time to be green and use bags that I do not have to pick up out of my yard or street everyday.

    Now f we could only tax chip bags and little Debbie snack papers…..