Bellingham’s push to end ‘paper or plastic?’

Grocery stores join politicians and activists
to remove plastic bags


Photo by Vincent Aiosa

Phyllis Shacter has been working with grocery stores and local and state legislators to impose a fee for the use of plastic and paper bags in stores in Washington. Shacter has been making her own reusable muslin bags for 15 years.


Phyllis Shacter said it was the staggering loss of life that made her realize change was desperately needed.

An estimated 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die each year by a seemingly innocuous killer. And what could this killer be, which spreads itself across oceans, a vastness of lasting waste? None other than what we use to carry our groceries home — plastic bags.

Entangled animals can become seriously or fatally wounded, drown or have reduced ability to catch food and avoid predators. Ingesting plastic can block and damage digestive tracts.

In 2002, 800 grams of plastic and packaging, the equivalent of about 147 plastic bags, were found in the stomach of a dead minke whale whose body had washed ashore in Normandy.

What is convenient, simple and readily available to grocery shoppers creates complications for marine life and lends itself to the largest source of marine debris. Eighty percent of the planet’s marine debris is human-made.

Last fall, Shacter, a retired business consultant in Bellingham, decided she was done contributing to the problem, so she stopped using plastic products altogether.

“I’m passionate because I’m a grandmother,” she said. “I want a healthy place for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. We’re suffocating the earth with these non-renewable resources.”

Shacter had been making her own cloth bags for 15 years already, so the change to going plastic-free wasn’t too dramatic. Then, a year ago, she decided to take it a step further. Since she was already doing her own part to reduce waste, she decided she wanted to help Bellingham do the same.


A plan to end the use of disposable bags

In October 2007, Shacter attended a symposium that was themed with the idea that environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfillment are all interconnected. She became inspired. For six weeks, she dedicated herself to researching the effects of plastic bags on the environment.

She came to understand that paper bags were also part of the problem. Paper may biodegrade unlike plastic, but it’s more energy-intensive to produce and requires timber, an important renewable resource.

Shacter’s mission became clear: Help decrease and eventually end the use of disposable bags.

Because grocery stores are some of the largest users of disposable bags, Shacter contacted representatives from Haggen, Terra Organica, the Community Food Co-Op and Brown & Cole, now The Markets LLC. She also sought out Re-Sources, Sustainable Connections, Village Books, Whatcom County Councilmember Barbara Brenner, Bellingham City Councilmember Jack Weiss and Gary Jensen, mayor of Ferndale.

Shacter conducted a series of meetings with this group in the spring, where she shared her research findings and brainstormed ideas on how to cut back on disposable bag use. By the third meeting, Washington State Representative Maralyn Chase joined the discussion after being invited by Shacter.

The group wanted to find the best way to address this issue and whether this was something that should be handled at the local or statewide level, Chase said.

“People were informed and in problem-solving mode,” Chase said. “We were trying to find solutions for these problems and we want these solutions to be sustainable. We want to do right by the future. That really is what sustainability is all about.”

The group discussed several options for limiting the use of the bags before coming to a general agreement: The policy should pertain to both paper and plastic, should be a fee and not a ban, and should be consistent statewide.

Chase said she had attempted to introduce legislation relating to disposable bags before. Those efforts, including a bill that required all bags given out by grocery stores be of compostable or recyclable material, were unsuccessful.

Becky Skaggs, vice president of strategy and consumer insights at Haggen, said Chase is currently drafting legislation for a statewide disposable bag fee that, if passed in January 2009, will likely come into effect in the summer of 2009. Chase acknowledged that this is in the works, but said she didn’t want to discuss details until the first draft of the bill has been completed.


Seeing how it goes in Seattle

This summer, the subject of disposable bags began to heat up in Bellingham and beyond.

As Chase and Shacter sought at the state level to end the pollution caused by paper and plastic, the Seattle City Council approved its own initiative.

On July 28, Seattle became the first American city to discourage the use of disposable bags. Starting Jan. 1, customers will be charged 20 cents for the use of each paper or plastic bag at grocery, drug and convenience stores.

The Seattle City Council approved the new fee in addition to a ban on plastic food-or-drink containers. Both policies will take effect Jan. 1, 2009.

Large stores with revenues of more than $1 million will keep 5 cents for every 20-cent bag fee paid, and smaller stores will be allowed to keep the entire $.20.

No one is forced to pay anything, said Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin. People have a choice: They can pay the fee or they can bring a reusable bag.

Conlin said the feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive. He’s received 4,000 letters and e-mails approving of the fee and only 500 opposed.

Those opposed to the fee bring up several problems, including the inconvenience for elderly and low-income people. They tend to shop less often, but may spend more and require more bags per shopping excursion, said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association.

“Seattle’s model didn’t give any relief for these folks,” Gilliam said. “Under their proposal, the person who shops once a month gets hit much harder, and the rich folks who shop more frequently get it much easier. This is a huge flaw.”


Opposing the disposable bag fee

Gilliam said he believes Seattle left major holes in its plan.

For example, customers don’t necessarily know how many disposable bags they will need for all their groceries, so they don’t know how much their total will cost. This could create problems for people who are counting on every penny, he said.

Because of the inconvenience and flaws attached to the bag fee, The Washington Food Industry, a group of independent grocery stores in Seattle, is attempting to repeal the ordinance.

The group must collect 14,374 valid signatures by Aug. 28, and began its signature-gathering campaign Aug. 8. The referendum will be on the ballot August 2009 if their efforts are successful.

This is a crucial time for both supporters and opponents of the fee alike, Gilliam said.

If enough signatures are collected, it might be back to the drawing board for people like Shacter and Chase who are attempting to address the problem of disposable bags statewide.

“Most of the time, you would find that locally owned-and-operated businesses are concerned about the kind of environment we are collectively leaving for the future,” Chase said. “In this case, the local businesses are in opposition to cleaning up the environment and the large trade organizations are really the ones making a difference. It’s puzzling to me.”


Launching the plan into action

In the process it takes to build a new law, Chase is currently in the waiting stage.

She’s laid out her expectations for the fee and is waiting for the staff of bill-writers to complete the first draft. She will then return to Bellingham to revise and discuss it with Shacter and the group.

Eventually, a legislative committee will decide whether or not the bill deserves a hearing, in which the public can testify for or against the legislation. If it passes in the House and the Senate, the last step before it becomes law is for the governor to sign it.

Policies set forth by lawmakers are essential to changing cultural behavior like using disposable bags. Additionally, change isn’t possible without the participation of grocery stores, a major distributor of disposable bags.

Aside from Chase’s efforts, having the support of the Northwest Grocery Association has made a real difference for stores like Haggen that are trying to be part of solution, Skaggs said.

The grocery association represents stores in Washington and Oregon, serving as a legislative watchdog, public relations agency and news and information resource.

“I think what’s exciting for me is that this is something that’s come from a small group and it’s gotten to the point where our grocery association is saying, ‘We’re going to get behind this,’ Skaggs said. “This is a very contentious and challenging issue across the cities. We want to be part of the answer.”


Bag use in Bellingham

No disposable bag restrictions have come to Bellingham yet. However, that’s not to say local grocers and business owners aren’t already trying to limit their use.

Village Books stopped carrying plastic bags months ago. Instead, customers bring their own bags, are allowed paper bags or may purchase a canvas bag.

Chuck Robinson, owner of Village Books, said the language makes a difference as well. When a customer is asked if they need a bag, they are more likely to say no as opposed to if they are asked if they would like a bag, he said.

Like Village Books, the only free bags at Trader Joe’s are made out of paper, a decision made at the store level, not the corporate level, said manager James Hiett.

As another incentive to be more environmentally conscious, customers who bring their own bags to Trader Joe’s get to enter their name into a drawing. The two weekly winners receive $25 worth of free groceries.

Haggen has been promoting and selling reusable bags for more than a year.

In 2007, Haggen sold approximately 150,000 reusable bags company-wide, and this year, it sold an additional 85,000.

Haggen’s reusable bags are made from a byproduct of the plastic manufacturing process that limits the amount of additional energy needed to produce them.

In Whatcom County, Haggen uses approximately 15 million disposable bags annually, 20 percent of which are paper bags, said Haggen spokesperson Dave Brumbaugh.

A recent 10 percent reduction in the use of disposable bags is attributable to the availability of the reusable bag, he said.


Paper or plastic?

Plastic is like a diamond that isn’t pretty, Chase said. It lasts forever.

Instead of biodegrading, most plastic photodegrades.

While biodegradation happens through biological processes, photodegredation breaks down material through exposure to light. This means that instead of decomposing easily like paper, plastic degrades slowly and ends up as small pieces scattered across beaches, in landfills and in the food web when ingested by animals.

In addition to the annual casualty of marine life, annual plastic production worldwide claims more than 12 million barrels of oil. Five hundred billion to one trillion bags are used worldwide each year, according to House Bill 3215.

Robinson said he thinks a program to reduce paper and plastic might be too ambitious, and a plastic-only fee program might be more realistic.

However, the impact of paper bags on the environment is four times worse than that for an equal number of plastic bags used, according to a Seattle Public Utilities study. Except for on-land and marine litter, paper’s contribution to pollution is worse than plastic in every other category.

Paper manufacturing accounted for 7.8 million pounds of toxic releases for 2004, which was 26 percent of all toxins released. Pulp and paper mill production contribute to global warming, acid rain and problems with the ozone and respiration, according to a report released by the city of Seattle.

For anyone questioning the answer to “Paper or Plastic?” Shacter’s response will always be the same. It’s neither.

She’ll also say that her efforts are hardly activism and instead, are simply what needs to be done in order to help sustain life.

“We have to respect all life,” Shacter said. “Who is going to take care of life if humans don’t? We can do without debris and landfills, but we can’t do without ecosystems and animals. In researching, I have become shocked by what I’ve learned. It’s just a wake-up call and I’ve been awakened.”

Related Stories