Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin propose a 20-cent "green fee" on all disposable bags to encourage customers to carry their groceries home in bags of their own.

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Next time the cashier says “paper or plastic,” think outside the bags. Think about ocean pollution, giant landfills and global warming, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels says.

Then think to next year, when you might have to either pull out a reusable tote or pay 20 cents a bag.

Nickels and City Council President Richard Conlin proposed a 20-cent “green fee” Wednesday on all disposable bags to encourage customers to carry their milk and eggs home in their own bags.

Forget the canvas sacks at home? Shoppers at grocery, convenience and drug stores will pay the price starting Jan. 1, if the City Council approves. A family buying six bags of groceries a week would spend $62.40 a year in bag fees. The city will issue one free reusable shopping bag to each household.

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“The answer to the question ‘Paper or plastic?’ should be ‘Neither,’ ” Nickels said at a news conference. “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.”

The proposed fee, the first of its kind in the nation, is the latest green legislation from a mayor intent on making environmental stewardship his legacy.

In March, Nickels ended the purchase of bottled water by city departments and proposed requiring all new Seattle taxis to get at least 30 miles per gallon. Last fall, he hosted a conference for U.S. mayors on climate change and persuaded more than 700 mayors to sign on to a pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions based on the Kyoto Protocol.

Nickels and Conlin have been working on a “zero-waste” strategy to reduce trash and encourage recycling. They also announced Wednesday a proposed ban on plastic-foam food containers and cups at food-service businesses, starting Jan. 1. Nonrecyclable plastic containers and utensils would be banned in 2010.

“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.

Seattle Public Utilities estimates the city uses 360 million bags a year, or 600 per person. Seventy percent come from grocery, convenience and drug stores, city officials say. Many are sent to a landfill, but bags also end up in Puget Sound and churn into the Pacific Ocean, environmental advocates say.

San Francisco last year became the first U.S. city to impose an outright ban on noncompostable plastic bags, replacing them with compostable plastic and paper bags. Nickels chose to model his fee proposal on a program in Ireland, which he said reduced disposable-bag use by 90 percent.

Store owners would keep 5 cents of the bag fee to cover costs. Smaller businesses that gross less than $1 million a year would keep the entire 20-cent fee. It would not apply to the smaller plastic bags such as those available in produce sections.

Seattle Public Utilities estimates the city would collect $10 million per year. About $2 million would go to provide and promote reusable bags. The rest would go toward waste prevention, recycling and environmental-education programs.

“I think the city is doing the right thing,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents chains such as QFC and Fred Meyer. “We’ve already been pushing reusable bags and reduce plastic bags at our stores.”

He does wonder whether 20 cents is the right price, given the inflation on groceries driven by higher grain and oil prices. In Ireland, officials set the fee at 20 cents, then raised it to 33 cents before shopping behavior changed, Gilliam said.

In the Uwajimaya Village checkout line, reaction ranged from sticker shock to approval.

Germaine Szewczyk, who makes regular trips from Bremerton to pick up Hawaiian food, called a fee “ludicrous.”

“We don’t come to shop to spend more money on reusable bags,” she said as she carted out nine plastic bags.

She tried using a reusable bag but didn’t like it. If the council approves the fee, she would pay the 20 cents.

Kathleen Kline, who lives up the street from Uwajimaya, usually brings a reusable bag. She called the fee a good idea.

“It would encourage more recyclable bags and less plastic waste,” she said, although she wondered whether one bag would be enough. “Just one? It seems like it might be a problem depending on how big your household is.”

Other cities around Seattle have thought about the environmental predicament of plastic bags.

The Bellevue City Council plans to discuss the use of plastic bags later this year, but it’s unclear what measures the council may take, said city spokesman Tim Waters. In Tukwila’s monthly newsletters, officials encourage people to use durable bags. In Redmond, too, officials say they encourage residents to use their own grocery bags, and sometimes give away reusable bags at local events. But right now, officials have no plans to ban disposable bags or charge a fee for them, said Jon Spangler, Redmond’s city’s natural resources manager.

“In Redmond we try to do it more cooperatively than authoritatively,” he said.

The fee could prove a struggle for low-income consumers, advocates say.

“It is an undue burden,” said Mike Buchman, a spokesman for Solid Ground, a nonprofit that serves families dealing with hunger and homelessness. While he applauds the mayor’s environmental policy, “there are a lot of hungry people in our community, and every dime that can go to nutritional food is important,” he said.

Buchman said more than half of seniors and residents in Seattle public housing have been unable to buy food at some point because of insufficient resources. The one bag the city intends to provide is not enough to hold groceries for a household, he said.

Nickels said everyone must play a role in stopping climate change. “It’s important to recognize that global warming and trying to prevent climate disruption is going to require all of us to change our behavior. That is a given,” he said.

“If families say the cost of reusable bags is an issue, we should do something about it,” Clark said.

Though she loves the mayor’s proposal, she is now wondering how she would clean up after her cat.

“When I clean out the cat box, I use grocery bags,” she said. “I have to figure out something else.”

Staff reporters Ashley Bach and Cara Solomon contributed to this report.

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or

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