Tacoma council moving to ban plastic grocery bags despite mixed survey

Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma places a customer’s groceries into a recycled plastic bag in December 2015. The Tacoma City Council may vote on banning disposable plastic bags as soon as April 26.
Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma places a customer’s groceries into a recycled plastic bag in December 2015. The Tacoma City Council may vote on banning disposable plastic bags as soon as April 26. The News Tribune

Tacoma City Council members are ready to take steps to phase out plastic grocery bags even though a recent informal survey suggests many residents aren’t ready for the change.

That survey of almost 2,200 people showed no clear majority in support of a ban. About 48 percent of respondents want the city to outlaw disposable bags, 42 percent opposed the proposal and the remainder indicated they were on the fence.

They were the kind of results that gave ammunition both to environmental-minded supporters of a ban and to residents who want to keep using plastic bags.

“What you discovered is very clear. The city of Tacoma does not support a bag ban or ordinance,” Michael Johnson, a co-owner of a Tacoma plastic bag plastics company called Poly Bag LLC, told the City Council’s sustainability committee last month.

But council members say they’re ready to move forward with an ordinance that would make Tacoma the 15th city in the state to prohibit stores from handing out disposable bags.

Four council members endorsed a ban at the meeting where Johnson spoke, including ones who said they worried about passing fees on to lower-income families.

They acknowledged that plastic bags make up a small portion of Tacoma’s overall waste stream — less than 1 percent — but they called them a "very different litter" because they can easily float away to harm wildlife or waterways.

“We do need to change the habits and move away from using something that all in all is not good for us as a whole,” said Councilman Keith Blocker.

He and his colleagues favor an ordinance based on one Bellingham adopted in 2012 that prohibits stores from distributing disposable bags and requires stores to charge customers a nickel to use paper bags, with some exemptions for low-income residents and restaurants that serve takeout food. People with food stamps or assistance from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutritional program would not have to pay the paper bag fees.

Mark Gardner, the legislative analyst for Bellingham’s city council, said most people in Bellingham are accustomed to the ordinance now. Stores have taken some creative approaches to complying with the law, such as a hardware store that lets customers shop with the cardboard boxes it brings in for its inventory.

For the most part, people are used to bringing their reusable bags when they go shopping now, he said.

“I haven’t heard any complaints in a couple years, so I think it’s working pretty well,” he said.

70 to 100 millionEstimated number of plastic bags used in Tacoma in a year

On Tuesday, residents can learn more about the proposal at an open house in Tacoma’s main library.

Councilman Ryan Mello wants to move the proposal to a full council vote within the next two months. If the nine-member council passes a law, stores would be allowed to use up their inventory of disposable bags before shifting to paper ones.

He and several other council members said banning bags would be an important step in tackling more challenging environmental goals, such as a long-term effort to divert 70 percent of the city’s waste away from landfills.

“It’s a simple but effective way to get people thinking about what they consume and consuming differently,” he said.

Tacoma officials have been considering a plastic bag ban since 2012, the year a ban in Seattle took effect. Volunteers who sit on the Sustainable Tacoma Commission are eager to see a ban enacted after years of talking about it.

“If we are trying to take serious what we are doing in this city with sustainability, then we should take the opportunity to go all-in,” Allysa Illich, who sits on the commission, told Mello’s City Council subcommittee last month.

Yet the ban’s opponents are just as certain that a new law would be a poor service to shoppers. At its weekday afternoon meeting, Mello’s committee drew Johnson, a lobbyist from a national plastic bag manufacturing organization and a resident who spoke out against the proposal.

If we are trying to take serious what we are doing in this city with sustainability, then we should take the opportunity to go all in.

Alyssa Illich

They argued that residents might drive to neighboring cities to keep shopping at stores that provide plastic bags.

“I find it shocking that no one thinks people wouldn’t go to Lakewood or Federal Way,” Tacoma resident Taina Anderson said.

The city tried to get a better sense of the public’s feelings about a bag ban with its online survey last fall and early this winter. It likely attracted people who had strong opinions on either side because it took feedback from people who chose to go to the city website and participate in it.

About 400 people who took the survey indicated they do not live in Tacoma. Another 47 said they don’t live or shop here.

About 70 percent of respondents said they had a college or graduate degree. That’s a select group considering that about 25 percent of Tacoma residents have college degrees.

“It just doesn’t sound very representative of Tacoma to me,” said Tom Pierson, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

A separate business survey drew responses from 84 companies. They overwhelmingly opposed new fees or bans on shopping bags.

Pierson questioned the environmental benefits of banning disposable bags, noting that they are recyclable and many people reuse them.

“What are we trying to accomplish?” he asked. “We have so many other issues that we need to resolve and this just seems unnecessary.”

Other communities that adopted plastic bag bans had similarly strong opposition before ordinances were enacted, according to Tacoma city employees who made calls to their counterparts. But those strong feelings seemed to subside when people grew accustomed to bringing their reusable shopping bags to the store.

Tacoma council members say they think the same dynamic will play out here.

“This is about leading with our values, and at the end of the day it’s really not that big of a deal,” Councilman Anders Ibsen said.


Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary

If you go

What: An open house on a proposal to ban disposable plastic bags in Tacoma

Where: Olympic Room at the main branch of Tacoma Public Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S.

When: 6 to 7:45 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29

For more information, go to https://www.cityoftacoma.org/