Seattle Plastic Bag Ban Comes At A Cost

On December 19th, the Seattle City Council officially voted to ban single use plastic bags.  This act stands as a major victory and a fitting end to a year chalked full of revolutions. Though the revolution against plastic bags pale in comparison to those that took place in the Middle East this past spring, I, for one, feel pride as a native Washingtonian to know my state is trying to protect the environment.  Not only did Seattle ban plastic bags but the outlying cities of Mukilteo, Bellingham, Edmonds, as well as Portland, Oregon followed suit.

While the ban is a definite victory for the environment, it feels somewhat bittersweet because of how long the measure took to pass.  Staunch opposition funded pro-plastic bag campaigns in Seattle over the past several years to ensure their lasting use.  Initially Seattle imposed a 20 cent tax on each plastic bag used by consumers; however the vote was later repealed due in part to $1.4 million plastic industry campaign to overturn the decision.  While 20 cents does not seem like a lot of money, if you consider that Seattleites use approximately 292 million plastic bags annually, 20 cents per bag makes quite a lot of revenue (more than $58 million).  Seattle is a city home to about 608,000 people which averages to about 480 plastic bags per citizen annually.  Now, of course not every citizen is choosing to use plastic bags; and of course, there are tourists and out-of-towners that factor into that statistic. But for arguments sake, we’ll say the average Seattleite would have spent about $95 dollars per year on plastic bags, which is a significant amount of money for the lay citizen.  This opens up an interesting debate, is it better to ban something that is environmentally harmful or heavily tax its use?

The pro-plastic lobby hammered the plastic bag ban referendum for denying Seattleites of their basic right of choice.  According to the lobby, Americans should have the freedom to choose whatever we want regardless of the consequences.  With a heavy tax on something like plastic bags everyone is happy; plastic enthusiasts get to have their bags (at a price) and environmentalists don’t need to use them, right? 

Unfortunately, lobbyist funding makes issues far from cut and dry.   The 2009 lift of the plastic bag tax in Seattle is an exemplar of the intricacies of policy making in the United States.

If a lobby throws enough money at an issue, no restrictions get placed on an item’s use or effects on the environment.  While the same could be said about a wholesale ban on an item, voters tend to make more informed decisions when something has the possibility of becoming completely restricted, which means lobby money has less of an effect on the overall outcome of the vote.

Most importantly, in the case of plastic bags, a freedom should not impede any citizen’s natural right to a healthy environment.  Plastic bags significantly pollute water sources thereby threatening the sources overall health.  Americans have an insane amount of options when it comes to consuming in the United States, and we all take part in and enjoy that freedom wholeheartedly; but a choice should never threaten the overall health of the natural environment.  For the sake of the environment, society must sacrifice some choices so that the well-being of the natural environment can be maintained. 

In theory a tax works for limiting environmental degradation from plastic bags (or any consumer commodity), but because of the societal stigmas and lobby money against new taxes, no progress is ever made.  For that reason, I’m happy that Seattle has opted to join San Jose, California, Las Pinas, Philippines, Rye, New York, and Northern Territory, Australia (just to name a few) in banning single-use plastic bags.

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