Seattle’s new 20-cent plastic bag fee is clearly the most important issue facing America today. It was so important that Glenn Beck had Seattle City Councilwoman Jan Drago on his show to discuss how Seattle residents are ready to overthrow the oppressive nanny state that is Seattle city government. If Nickels, Conlin, and the others aren’t stopped, it’s a certainty that this will be copied across the country and we’ll all soon be knitting our own cloth bags out of our children’s clothes.
Of course, I’m being silly here. While I’m not wild about the fee, it’s really not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. And I’m curious whether or not either Beck or Drago figured out that the interview they did made both of them look ridiculous, primarily because Beck had Drago on to complain about arriving at an “oppressive” solution to this problem, while Drago would have been fine with a total ban, something which likely would have caused Beck and his 7 viewers to have a seizure.
There are a couple of things that I’ve found frustrating in trying to evaluate this issue, which certainly pulls at the cracks in that intersection between liberalism and libertarianism that I inhabit. The main source of frustration is that I find it very difficult to quantify the goals of the policy or the expected results. While my wife and I personally recycle our bags or use them as either trash-can liners or for discarding of the waste produced by our feline masters, I obviously know that not everyone disposes of these bags properly. How serious of a problem is that?
Both Mayor Nickels and Richard Conlin see this as being part of their effort to be as environmentally conscious as possible:
“It’s about the use of scarce resources, about pollution of our environment, about litter in our streets and parks and the costs, both economically and environmentally, of throwing away a piece of Earth we have an opportunity to protect and preserve,” Conlin said at the news conference, which Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Clark also attended.
Playing Devil’s Advocate to the Council, Danny Westneat references a local expert on ocean-based pollution, who says that plastic grocery bags are a miniscule part of the overall pollution problem. Is that missing the point? Is there another area where improperly disposed plastic bags require the city to spend extra money to clean it up?
If you follow the logic being presented in order to justify the fee, there must be. But it’s not clear from anything I’ve read. From Kathy Mulady in the PI:
The 20-cent-per-bag “green fee” is expected to raise about $3.5 million each year. Seattle Public Utilities needs about $500,000 to run the program. The remainder will be used to offset expected increases in the city’s solid-waste rates.
Are the increases in the city’s solid-waste rates coming from problems with plastic bags? Somehow, I doubt it. But that’s where the money will come from. It’s like tolling to offset the costs of a new 520 bridge, except that you’re only tolling the single occupancy lanes.
In the end, all of this is moot if it’s completely painless and inexpensive for everyone to just start using the reusable bags. Richard Conlin continues to insist that no one will have to pay the fee because they can use the reusable bags. This is something I just can’t quantify right now. How much groceries can they hold? How convenient are they when getting large amounts of groceries? How easy are they to clean? And while many may attempt to look at the reduction in plastic bag use within Seattle grocery stores, will we know how many people are going to do what my wife plans to do (do her grocery shopping in the suburbs where she works instead of coming home to Seattle first)? As long as we continue to reuse our bags for our normal trash, we know we’re not contributing to the garbage problem. Will there be a way to measure not just plastic bag usage, but also the level of improper disposal?
And that leads to me to my last point. Is this policy really nanny-statism? I continually hear this over and over again that the bag fee is a blatant example of Seattle’s out of control nanny-statism. Nanny-statism is when government tries to protect people from their own decisions – because they see people as children incapable of caring from themselves. Once you start defining it more broadly than that, the term loses its meaning. Jaywalking, the 4 foot rule in strip clubs, drug laws, helmet laws – those are all examples of nanny-statism because those laws are attempting to protect people from their own moral or public health choices. The bag fee isn’t about making people’s moral or public health choices for them. It’s about a way to reduce the amount of plastic bags in circulation.
I sympathize with Drago that maybe the policy should have been implemented first without the fee, as I wonder if it will end up putting the burden for offsetting the city’s increased solid waste expenses on the people who can least afford to give up the extra cash, but it’s sure as hell not some slippery slope to oppressive government. Calling this fee nanny-statism is no different than saying that tolls to pay for the 520 bridge is nanny-statism. I’m often wary of Nickels and his belief that part of his role as mayor is to come up with ways that cities across the world can save the planet, but this issue has caused that wariness to really send some folks flying off the deep end here. Hopefully, by next summer, we’ll have a better idea whether or not this was good policy or not.