Musings on Kirkland's Plastic Bag Ban and Opposing City Hall

On March 1st, the City Council's plastic bag ban goes into effect at most retail establishments. Retailers may provide shoppers with paper bags but if they do, they must charge the customer a minimum of five-cents per bag.

There was the usual list of pros and cons to consider by the council before voting 6-1 in favor of the plastic bag ban ordinance last March. What makes this one so controversial to some is that 69% of Kirkland citizens opposed the measure according to the city's own survey.  Surveys are paraded before the public when they support what City Hall wishes to enact. Interestingly, those surveys which contradict the council wishes seem to not be paraded around as much. Odd how that works.

PSA Notice: It is not wise to remind people in power of the definition of words like hypocrisy. Making statements like "Kirkland truly has become the definition of a nanny state" is not recommended if you want to curry favor in the halls of power. We recommend smiling, toeing the party line and being a cooperative citizen. In other words, obey.

For the record, Kirkland Views opposed the plastic bag ban because we feel that our city council should not think it their duty to micromanage the lives of everyday citizens. We are not particularly fond of plastic bags either but requiring merchants to charge customers for paper bags when neither party wishes to do so is ridiculous. The ends justifies the means is not a basis for good public policy nor is micromanaging of commerce and private transactions by our city council. If the council had instead incentivized shoppers and merchants to change their behavior rather than to penalize them to do so, we could have supported a reasonable alternative measure. Alas, they chose to overreach.

Far too often it seems the mindset is to favor enforcement over incentives.  Why use a carrot when there's a good stick we can swing to ensure compliance?

Some of the merchants in town are vehemently opposed to the plastic bag ban. Speak to them in private and they will tell you what they really think. Don't expect them to publicly oppose City Hall as there are concerns that there will be consequences for stepping out of line. No kidding. This really is the case in town and it has been for at least the dozen years we have been involved. How widespread this scenario is we do not know but any such reports are disconcerting.

We published this attempt at humor titled "Public Bags Banned by City" last February. It was not very popular in certain circles.

We published this attempt at humor titled "Public Bags Banned by City" last February. It was not very popular in certain circles.

This is a sad reality: in Kirkland too many merchants believe that there is a price to be paid for opposing City Hall. Anyone who knows the merchants also knows very well that there is a widespread perception that it is bad business to publicly oppose City Hall. The perception is that there is a price to pay for speaking out against those in power. There is fear of retaliation for not towing the line. This is reality today and it has been this way for many years. It is so sad to see. We don't know how this schism began but our hope is that City Hall and the merchants can get on the same page.

Our second attempt at humor was titled, "I Will Not Make Fun Of Elected Officials." 

Our second attempt at humor was titled, "I Will Not Make Fun Of Elected Officials." 

The plastic bag ban is but one of many concerns merchants have with City Hall. And to be sure, merchants hold a wide range of views on the issues. Some of the other issues of concern include parking (of course), traffic, change use penalties, bait and switch on the CKC. Who can forget the whole push to attract businesses to open along the CKC and to make their shop's front door face the trail? That yarn that was sold widely until it was run over by the Council's push to install two lanes of Sound Transit busses in front of these business's new "front doors facing the trail." Nice.

On the bright side, Totem Lake and Parkplace (does anyone think Kirkland Urban is a good name?) redevelopment show great promise to revitalize longtime neglected properties. We look forward to seeing what comes to town when the dust settles.

Let's hope the winds of change will usher in a revitalized local economy and with it, friendlier relations with our local merchants. Kirkland can do better and should do better. Long standing feuds and old grudges need to be put aside. Policy makers need to listen to their constituents rather than ignore the inconvenient 69% of the population. Such moves, regardless of good intention, are a slap in the face of an electorate which does not appreciate the notion that our local government's role is to act as our nanny.

The City of Kirkland has produced this instructional video about the plastic bag ban:

The following questions and answers are from the City's website:

How will this ordinance affect shoppers?

When will the ordinance take effect? 

March 1, 2016. The effective date for food rescue organizations such as Hopelink and Food Lifeline is March 1, 2017.

What bags will be provided at checkout? 

Plastic bags will not be available at grocery store checkout, department stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and other retailers (restaurants will still provide takeout bags). Instead, retailers may provide large paper bags for a minimum five-cent fee per bag. Small paper bags will not require a charge. 

Which retailers are affected?

Most retail establishments are subject to the new requirements, including grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, farmers market vendors, and other retail stores or vendors. The ordinance applies to both large and small retail businesses.

Can retailers provide plastic bags for meat, produce, bulk foods and other items?

Yes. Bags used by customers inside stores to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy or small hardware items are still allowed, as are bags to wrap frozen foods, ice cream, meat or fish, flowers and other items where dampness is a problem. Newspaper and dry-cleaning bags are allowed as well.

Does the policy prohibit retailers from selling plastic bags such as garbage bags and pet waste bags?

No. The requirements only apply to bags provided to customers at check out to carry away purchased items. Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags are not prohibited.

What counts as a reusable bag?

Reusable bags that retailers would be allowed to provide are defined as being machine-washable, with a minimum lifetime of 125 uses. 

My favorite store gives me a discount when I bring my reusable bag. Can they still do that?

Yes. Retailers have discretion to continue to provide a discount for reusable bag use, if they choose.

Are there exemptions for the paper bag charge for low-income customers? 

Yes, many low-income customers are exempt from the charge. Specifically, no retail store at any time may charge the five-cent pass-through fee for large recyclable paper bags to customers having vouchers or electronic benefits cards issued under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) support programs, or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly "Food Stamps," also known as Basic Food), or the Washington State Food Assistance Program (FAP).

Why the City of Kirkland Restricted Plastic Bags

Why did the City restrict disposable plastic bags?

The Kirkland City Council decided to restrict use of plastic bags to protect our environment. Lightweight plastic bags don’t biodegrade – instead they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that are estimated to take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. The tiny pieces of plastic pollute our soils and oceans. When plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, those microscopic particles may also be consumed by small animals in the oceans and enter the food chain. Because of plastic’s persistence in the environment, the City believes the use of disposable plastic products should be minimized.

How did the City decide to ban plastic bags?

The City Council received information at multiple meetings between 2013 and 2015 before voting to adopt the new plastic bag reduction policy ordinance on February 17, 2015. Read the Plastic Bag Report (PDF, 4mb), which evaluated options for plastic bag policies based on their sustainability.

Why not just recycle disposable plastic bags?

After years in use, even in cities like Seattle that have tried to recycle disposable plastic bags, recycling hasn’t caught on. Less than 15 percent of disposable plastic bags are recycled in Seattle, which is reputed to have the highest plastic bag recycling rate in the country. 

Aren’t the non-woven polypropylene bags sold as reusable bags by many retailers as much of a problem as the lightweight throwaway bags they’re replacing?

No. Once these bags have been reused a couple dozen times their impact is less than that of the many more lightweight plastic bags they’ve replaced. They can hold two to three times as much as typical throwaway plastic bags, meaning that fewer can be used to hold the same amount of goods. The lightweight bags often need to be doubled for strength - that’s not a problem for the reusable bags. 

Why not use biodegradable or compostable bags?

Biodegradable and compostable bags are not meant to be shopping bags. Biodegradable bags are still considered disposable bags, and can take up to three years to decompose. Compostable bags are specifically designed as liners for kitchen food waste containers and as liners for food and yard waste carts. Also, many of the biodegradable bags provided by retailers are not approved by Cedar Grove Composting – they do not completely biodegrade and become contaminants in finished compost.

Why is there a fee on paper bags?

Paper bags are organic, so they can decompose and do not cause the same pollution issues - but reducing waste means cutting down on the use of paper bags, too. That’s why the City is incentivizing consumers to switch to reusable bags through a five-cent charge on all full-size paper bags.

Making the Transition to Reusable Bags Easy

What should I do with paper bags I get from stores?

Reuse or recycle paper bags when you get them or donate clean ones to your neighborhood food bank. Using paper bags to store and carry food scraps to your food and yard waste cart is an easy way to manage your food waste.

What should I do with plastic bags I receive from exempted uses or shopping outside the City?

Collect your plastic bags and bring them to drop-off points for recycling. In Kirkland, the Parkplace QFC and Totem Lake Fred Meyer have collection points for plastic bags. For more information, visit Plastic bread bags or produce bags can be saved and used again for trash or dog waste cleanup. Plastic bags are also accepted for recycling at our monthly StyroFest events (pdf). 

Where can I get reusable shopping bags?

Most grocery and drug stores already sell reusable bags for about a dollar or less. 

The City is providing free large reusable bags to ease the transition for residents. Pick up your free reusable bag at City Hall! 

How should I choose a reusable bag? 

The best bag is the one you’ll use, so pick a bag that is comfortable to carry. Test the strap or handle length for fitting over your shoulder or carrying in your hands. Choose a bag with enough capacity to carry a good amount, but not so much that the bag will be too heavy. 

Consider getting bags of different sizes and varieties to suit your shopping needs:

  • Like the shape of paper bags? Get a reusable bag with a fold-out bottom that will stand up. Prefer the shape of plastic bags? Try a small tote with handles such as a ChicoBag. 
  • Buy lots of perishable or frozen foods? Get an insulated bag. 
  • String bags work well for produce.
  • Compartmented bags are available for carrying wine bottles. 
  • If you often purchase bulky household items, make sure you have an oversized bag that will fit large items. 

Pay attention to how many paper bags you get from the store for a typical shopping trip, and get that many reusable bags (or a few extra if you have two cars). 

How will I remember to use my reusable bags?

Keep several reusable bags in the back seat of your car for trips to the store. Store multiple bags inside each other so you can grab the bundle easily. Small bags can be carried in your backpack, shoulder bag or purse. Let the five-cent charge for paper bags be a reminder to shop with your reusable bags and you’ll save money in the long run.

I use plastic bags to pick up pet waste. How should I clean up after my dog? 

If you currently use plastic shopping bags to clean up after your pet, you may need to transition to using plastic bags from products, such as bread bags, newspaper bags, and produce bags. You will probably continue to receive some plastic shopping bags from takeout food and other exempted uses, as well as from shopping in other cities where plastic bags are not restricted. Alternatively, pet waste bags are available for purchase at local stores. 

How should I keep my reusable bags clean?

Consider periodically washing your reusable bags for grocery shopping. Insulated bags can be wiped with a disinfecting cloth. Consider designating specific bags for carrying meat, seafood, produce, and cleaning products to avoid contamination. Likewise, consider having some reusable bags for non-food purchases like books and household items that won’t need to be washed as often. After washing, be sure your bags are dry before you put them away. 

What has the City done to help businesses comply with the policy? 

Informational packets (pdf, 260kb) were mailed to affected retailers in June 2015 and businesses were visited by staff during summer 2015. Educational materials (zip) are available for retailers to download. Affected retailers will receive a reminder postcard in February 2016, and staff will visit selected retailers.