Seattle shoppers will pay 20 cents for every paper and plastic bag used at grocery, drug and convenience stores starting in January, the City Council decided Monday. A ban on foam food containers will also begin in January.

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Geneva Smith, a retired nurse’s aide living in Columbia City, worries about the price of groceries and the rising cost of living in Seattle. The 67-year-old buys her soy milk at QFC, bread at a day-old outlet and her fruit at an Asian grocery store.

When she heard the city was considering a 20-cent fee for disposable bags, she said it would not be good, especially for single mothers and seniors like herself living on a fixed income.

Still, she already has bought five reusable bags, scoring a heavy-duty canvas one at Goodwill for 99 cents.

On Monday, the City Council approved a 20-cent fee, starting in January, for each disposable paper or plastic bag used at grocery, drug and convenience stores.

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While other U.S. cities have banned plastic bags, Seattle is believed to be the first to discourage use by charging a fee.

Although the new fee may force Seattle residents to permanently alter their shopping habits, council members said the environmentally correct behavior will become natural, just like recycling.

“I think after a few months of legislation, we will wonder what all the fuss was about,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess. “Same as when we moved to mandatory recycling.”

The city plans to give at least one free, reusable bag to each household, and the council directed Seattle Public Utilities to come up with a plan by the end of November on how to provide extra bags to low-income residents.

Reusable totes are the bags of the future, city leaders say, and they hope the fee will send shoppers scurrying back to their car trunks or home for the bags, which many local stores have started selling. In Ireland, a similar program reduced plastic-bag use by 90 percent, Seattle officials said.

The fee, first proposed by Mayor Greg Nickels, is one of many steps the city has taken to reduce the amount of trash sent to an Oregon landfill.

On Monday, the council also voted to ban foam containers at businesses serving food, starting in January.

The city already requires residents to recycle — or risk a fine or having your garbage left at the curb. Earlier this year, Nickels ordered city departments to stop buying bottled water. Next April, single-family homes will be required to start recycling table scraps.

Today, the City Council’s environment committee will discuss incentives for builders to reuse or recycle construction debris.

Still, the bag fee attracted record attention. Council President Richard Conlin heard from 4,500 people. Opponents ran radio and newspaper ads.

The fee comes as consumers face inflation and rising food and fuel prices. In the past two weeks in Seattle, three tax measures have been added to the Nov. 4 ballot asking voters to increase property and sales taxes to pay for light rail, parks and Pike Place Market renovations.

Councilmember Jan Drago said she is worried the council is sending a message that it is insensitive to residents struggling in a tough economy. Drago voted against the bag fee, which passed 6-1. “It’s about timing, not about the goal,” she said.

Conlin and members Burgess, Sally Clark, Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell and Tom Rasmussen voted in favor of the fee. Nick Licata and Richard McIver were absent. The foam ban passed 7-0.

Large grocery stores will keep a nickel per disposable bag to administer the new fee. Small stores that gross less than $1 million a year can keep all 20 cents.

The city expects the fee will generate $3.5 million for the utility, which will spend it on administrative costs and other recycling programs. Businesses that don’t comply could be fined, but officials say they intend to start with education and outreach, rather than penalties.

The foam ban will take place in two stages. In January, polystyrene and Styrofoam containers, such as clamshell boxes at takeout restaurants, will be banned at food-service businesses. In July 2010, the ban will expand to include plastic utensils and plastic food containers. Those business will have to switch to compostable or recyclable alternatives.

Gail Williams-Cyprian, who picked up a pineapple and sunflowers for her sister-in-law’s birthday Monday at the QFC on Rainier Avenue South, supports the bag fee.

“Because of the situation with the earth, it might help with not having all that plastic” around, she said. The caregiver and former hairstylist predicts that long-term, shopping with a reusable bag may limit people to buying only essentials.

Her fruit went into a reusable tote she brought with her. Her flowers, however, went into a plastic bag, which until January, is free.

“I’m OK with it,” said Williams-Cyprian, 52. “I’m not paying for it.”

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or

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