In The News

Seattle shoppers getting used to reusable bags, stores less so

Originally published in The Seattle Times on January 17, 2013.

Thin, carryout plastic bags have nearly disappeared from big grocery and retail stores in Seattle, six months after city officials enacted a ban to reduce litter and protect Puget Sound sea life. But costs for many stores have increased. Shoplifting has gone up slightly and stores have gotten pushback from some customers who don’t want to pay for paper.

Those are some results of a survey by Seattle Public Utilities to see how stores and shoppers are faring under the new rules. A second survey by Environment Washington, one of the proponents of the new law, found that 64 percent of shoppers agree with the bag ban and more than half say it has prompted them to bring reusable ones more often.

“Bringing your own bag is becoming the norm in Seattle,” said Emma Jornlin, field coordinator for Environment Washington, which surveyed almost 900 shoppers at nine supermarkets across the city. Women supported the ban more than men and younger people more than middle-age ones, she said.

About a third of stores in the city survey reported their bag costs have gone up because plastic bags were so much cheaper than paper. The 5-cent bag charge doesn’t cover the full cost and though more people are bringing reusable bags, it’s not enough to offset the greater cost of paper. Stores also reported a problem with customers refusing to pay.

One man said, “I just spent $100 in your store and you’re going to charge me 5 cents for a bag?’ ” recalled Alann Hamada, store director for Uwajimaya in the Chinatown International District.

Since the ban took effect, he said, the store’s sale of reusable bags increased dramatically, but many immigrant customers initially refused to pay and instead carried out purchases in their arms, creating a challenge for store security. The store also lost half of its plastic shopping baskets and though they’ve replaced them, they no longer allow customers to carry them out of the store, Hamada said.

“It’s been quite an ordeal,” he said.

The plastics industry opposed the bag ban, and a representative who reviewed the city surveys this week said it’s had negative, unintended consequences.

“Only 25 percent of stores said the 5-cent charge was not a problem. I think the city should conduct some serious follow-up investigations,” said Phil Rozenski, director of marketing and sustainability for Hilex Poly, a manufacturer and recycler of plastic bags.

Seven cities in the state have banned carryout plastic bags, including Bellingham and Issaquah. Two others, Shoreline and Anacortes, and Thurston County, are considering bans. Environment Washington said it hopes to find a sponsor in the Legislature for a bill to enact a statewide ban. At the Northgate Target store earlier this week, shoppers had the full range of reactions to the plastic-bag ban, from pride that they remembered their reusable bags to head shaking that there’s a ban at all.

“I hate it,” said Liz Francis, who said she’s tempted to shop in Shoreline, which hasn’t enacted a ban. About the old plastic shopping bags, she said, “They’re useful for everything.” And the reusable ones? “I forget them every time.”

But many Target customers expressed support for the goal of removing plastic from the environment and say the new law has spurred them to carry their own bags.

“It’s great. I should have done it a long time ago. I needed the ban to get me to do it,” Tracey Stewart said.

In the city’s survey of stores, smaller retail outlets reported less satisfaction with the ban than larger stores.

Some, such as bookstores, have begun using heavier weight plastic bags to protect purchases. Stores don’t have to charge for those, but many do, said Dick Lilly, of Seattle Public Utilities. Other complaints have come from tourists who don’t know there’s a bag ban and don’t have a reusable bag.

City Council members, who remember the failed attempt to enact a ban in 2009 — it was voted down by residents after the plastics industry spent $1.4 million on a ballot measure to oppose it — say they’re happy with how well the new ban has been received.

“I’ve been tremendously surprised and pleased,” said Councilmember Jean Godden. “People who voted it down are now carrying reusable bags. Considering it’s only been six months, I’m bowled over by the response.”

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