Prospect of ban on plastic bags doesn’t ruffle shoppers

Bills that would give state one uniform rule get hearings

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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You won’t find plastic bags in the shopping carts of Dana Blair and Brenda Miles. The two Vancouver residents aren’t big fans of paper, either.

“Then you’re looking at, how many trees are you going to destroy?” Blair said.

Both walked across a Fred Meyer parking lot this week toting a load of re-usable cloth bags. They’ve welcomed recent news that Portland and Seattle, among a handful of other Northwest cities, banned the use of most plastic grocery bags since last year — adding fuel to a debate that’s far from over.

The Washington Legislature has taken on the issue again this session, kicking around a pair of bills that would ban the ubiquitous plastic bags across the entire state. The idea has gained at least some traction, with the Senate version receiving a hearing last week. The House proposal — co-sponsored by eight Democrats — is scheduled for a hearing at 1:30 p.m. Friday in the House Committee on the Environment.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, is among the sponsors of the House version. He acknowledged a statewide bag ban isn’t likely to pass this year. But that’s not the only goal of introducing the legislation, he said.

“I think it’s done a good job raising the profile of the issue,” Fitzgibbon said. Even if it doesn’t become law in 2012, “it’s certainly something that we need to be aware of.”

In Vancouver, opinion varies on the prospect of a plastic bag ban. Blair and Miles counted themselves as strong supporters of the idea. Vancouver resident Jenine Hildebrand, though pushing a cart full of plastic-bagged groceries outside the same Fred Meyer this week, said she’d also be all for it.

“I think it’s wasteful,” she said of the difficult-to-recycle bags. “Sure, they’re great for picking up dog poop, but that’s about it.”

Hildebrand said she has a collection of re-usable bags but, like many shoppers, sometimes forgets to bring them. A ban on plastic bags might be the best way to change behavior, she said.

Jamie Glaser offered a different — or perhaps indifferent — view. The Vancouver resident originally hails from the east coast, where, he said, recycling and environmental concern are “just not a big deal” to most people. The same is true for Glaser, he said.

“It’s great if it happens, but it’s not something I get super-excited about,” Glaser said, adding that he typically opts for plastic bags simply because they’re more convenient and easier to carry.

Grocers’ opinions

Big grocery chains most affected by the proposal have been generally supportive of it, Fitzgibbon said. Most would rather see a uniform law than a patchwork of varying local rules that are more difficult to carry out, he said. But smaller grocers have been cool to the idea, citing the added cost of providing more nonplastic bags for their customers.

If it advances, it’s not clear what the Legislature’s proposal may look like. The House and Senate versions are similar — both allow smaller bags used specifically for produce, meat and other items — but aren’t entirely the same. One key difference: House Bill 2404 includes a five-cent charge for paper grocery bags, while Senate Bill 5780 does not.

State Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, is a main sponsor of the Senate version. She also represents Edmonds, which was the first city in Washington to ban plastic bags. Those actions only add momentum for getting something done at the legislative level, she said.

“I think it helps immensely,” Chase said. “It really helps to have local citizens take action.” Whether the rest of the Legislature is on board, she admitted, remains to be seen.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.