Seeking to reduce waste, Mayor Greg Nickels wants Seattle shoppers to pay a 20-cent fee on each disposable bag they get at grocery and drug stores.

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To reduce trash, Mayor Greg Nickels wants Seattle shoppers to pay a fee on all disposable bags — paper and plastic — at grocery, convenience and drug stores.

Customers would be charged a 20-cent “green fee” per bag used at the checkout line. If approved by the City Council, the fee would take effect Jan. 1.

“The answer to the question ‘Paper or plastic?’ should be ‘Neither,’ ” Nickels said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “Both harm the environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us in the environment, and the best way to handle waste is not to create it in the first place.”

Nickels said he wants to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags. The city plans to distribute one free bag to every household before the fee would go into effect.

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City Council President Richard Conlin, chairman of the utilities committee, and Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Sally Clark support the mayor’s proposal.

“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,” Conlin said at the news conference.

Retailers would keep five cents of the fee to cover the cost of implementing the fee.

Small businesses that gross less than $1 million a year would be able to keep the entire 20-cent fee. The fee does not apply to smaller bags, such as those used in the produce section of many grocery stores.

Nickels and Conlin also announced a proposal to ban plastic-foam food containers and cups at food-service businesses, starting Jan. 1. Non-recyclable plastic food containers and utensils would be banned in 2010.

Nickels said Seattle residents go through 360 million disposable bags a year, or 600 bags per person, and 75 percent come from grocery, convenience and drug stores.

The proposals are part of the city’s “zero-waste” strategy to increase recycling and reduce trash.

San Francisco has banned plastic grocery bags.

Nickels said the Seattle proposal is modeled on one in Ireland that has reduced disposable bags by 90 percent.

Seattle Public Utilities would collect the bag fee from stores. The utility estimates it would bring in $10 million per year. About $2 million would be used to provide and promote reusable bags. The rest would be spent on waste prevention, recycling and environmental education programs.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or

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