Local businesses look to next phase of plastic bag ban

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Image by Han Bui/NWAW

When July 1 rolled around, the Viet-Wah Supermarket in the International District still had a fair supply of plastic bags to go through. Despite the fact that July 1 was the day that Seattle’s plastic bag ban took effect, Viet-Wah, like many local businesses, did not quit plastics cold turkey. The new ban allows for businesses to use up its remaining supply of plastic bags. So, even though the ban has been in effect for about a month now, many stores  are continuing to give away plastic bags while their supply lasts.

“We didn’t go cold turkey on July 1, but we did remind customers about the ban whenever they used the plastic bags and encouraged them to bring their own bags next time,” said an administrator at the Viet-Wah Group.

“It’s been a slow process making the transition this last month, but we’re hopeful that in the near future, we can stop using the single-use plastic bags, and that customers will eventually stop expecting them.”

Seattle is the latest city to issue the plastic bag ban, following after pioneers Edmonds, Mukilteo, Bainbridge Island, and Bellingham. Ordinance number 123775, dubbed the Seattle Plastic Bag Ban and modeled after the “Bellingham Model,” was passed on Dec. 19, 2011. It was set to take effect on July 1 of the following year. Violators would be subject to a fine of $250 per violation.

“I hope the public will come to support the ban and understand that the ordinance is not meant to make life any more difficult for people. It was created with the purpose of preventing further damage to the environment. The wasteful packing product is used for a brief period of time and causes immense problems for the community as it becomes litter, ends up in the streams, and is ingested by animals,” said Pat Kaufman, a representative of Seattle Public Utilities.

“There are durable alternatives. Paper bags are easier to recycle than plastics. The best way to protect all that nature has given us is to use reusable bags,” said Kaufman.

According to a November 2011 report by Environment Washington called “Keeping Plastics Out of Puget Sound,” Washingtonians use more than two billion bags each year, which endanger the marine wildlife in the Puget Sound and create large problems with waste and disposal. Annually, 292 million disposable bags are used by Seattle alone. Less than 5 percent of these bags are recycled. Small pieces of plastic in the ocean absorb common pollutants, which are then consumed by fish and, in turn, consumed by people.

The current ban prohibits all Seattle retail stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout bags, including those advertised as compostable, biodegradable, photodegradable, or similar alternatives. Retail stores must charge a fee at a minimum cost of 5 cents to provide customers with paper bags. Those on public assistance are exempt from the 5 cent charge.

While the ban has many advantages, it also has many disadvantages, some of which stem from the structure of the law. Certain establishments, including dry cleaners, newspapers, and restaurants with take-out orders, can continue to use plastic bags. Plastics used to contain food, pet, or yard wastes are still allowed. The exceptions create  a vague sense of what can or cannot be done. Many local businesses are still unsure if they qualify as exceptions and when the penalties will begin to be enforced.

“The City of Seattle did clearly explain that we are allowed to go through our remaining stock of plastic bags, but as far as we know, there is no official cutoff date,” said Tran.
“They said there will be penalties, fines, in the future, but never stated when they would be imposed.”

A greater concern for store owners is the reaction of the customers who have not been weaned off the plastic bag habit.

“When people shop, they expect to get a tote of some sort to carry their goods away with them without having to pay for it. They are already spending quite a lot of money in your store. To charge them for a tote is excessive,” said Nikita Mathis, owner of clothing store Platinum Plush in the Rainier Valley.

“The customer’s experience is great, up until checkout — they feel insulted to [have to] pay for bags. Customers that shop with us are expecting a certain kind of experience.”

Out of concern for her customer’s experience, Mathis took it upon herself to pay out-of-pocket to pay for the bags, instead of having to charge her customers for them, incurring a significant cost to her business.

“Paper bags are around $80 for 100 units, whereas plastics are $80 for 1,000 units. If you do the math, you are getting 1/10 of what you’d normally get with plastics,” said Mathis.

Tran, who hopes that customers will soon come around to accept the ban, reports a mixed reaction.

“Some [customers] welcome the efforts to go green and have been bringing reusable bags even before the ban took effect. Others feel that the plastic bag ban is a major inconvenience and balk at the idea of paying for bags. It is especially difficult when other businesses around the area are still using the single-use plastic bags, because customers will say, ‘So-and-so is still using them, why aren’t you?’ ” said Tran.

Certain businesses in the International District, who have requested to not be named, reported to the Northwest Asian Weekly of customers responding harshly to their efforts to enforce the ban. Some businesses caved in to pressure and requests, and have resumed using plastic bags at the customers’ insistence. These businesses insist that while the city has done enough to notify businesses, educating customers is the next step. (end)

Tiffany Ran can be reached at tiffany@nwasianweekly.com.

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