Small Steps at the City Level

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The individual choice to bring a canvas bag to the grocery store is a small step that arguably makes little difference in the grand scheme. But an entire city making that choice? Now that might be a different story.

The City of Seattle may be next to join the ranks of plastic bag and foam container banning pioneers, such as Portland, San Francisco and China.

Seattle Public Utilities estimates that Seattleites throw 360 million disposable bags in the garbage every year. To help halt this unnecessary waste stream, City Council President Richard Conlin and Mayor Greg Nickels proposed a “green fee” of 20 cents on disposable shopping bags at Seattle’s convenience, drug and grocery stores, as well as a ban on certain uses of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam). The City estimates that this ban would ‘prevent the manufacture of 184 million bags a year, and will cut greenhouse gas production by nearly 112,000 tons over a 30-year period.’

The City wants to know what you think. On July 8, the Seattle City Council will host a city meeting to gain input on the proposed ban. This meeting will take place at City Hall, in the Council Chambers at 7 p.m.

There are many legitimate reasons to do this, and we at Worldchanging certainly support any measure that will help keep our oceans free from disintegrated plastic particles and our landfills free from an easily stoppable source of waste. But I think it's important to note that, while this is a good step, we will need to go much further.

The City states that this ban is part of its long-term goal ‘to increase Seattle's recycling rate to 70 percent by 2025 and reduce the amount of waste shipped to landfills by at least one percent per year over the next five years.’

Incremental goals look appealing because we know we can accomplish them. But it is possible--and necessary--to set higher goals. By eliminating the need to create so many disposable bags from fossil fuels and precious trees, we can stop one waste stream before it starts. To achieve zero waste, we need to further design waste out of our system. We can look to examples of solutions that already exist, such as Shanghai’s recent proposal to outlaw excessive packaging, Ireland’s mandatory producer take-back regulations for electronic waste and ZipCar’s effective model for vehicle sharing.

Banning plastic bags and foam containers is a proposal we should embrace, and I believe that setting a citywide standard could be the shift we need to move us toward widespread awareness and resourcefulness and away from a disposable culture (after all, free plastic shopping bags have only been around since the late 1970's--we can get by without them!). But once we tackle that first step, I will be excited to see the next strides we take in the right direction.