The controversial Seattle bag tax draws line between dissenters and supporters
By Julie Pham
FOR Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle may become the first city in the United States to institute a tax on the plastic bags people carry home from grocery stores. Seattleites will vote on Referendum 1, dubbed the Seattle bag tax, in the Aug. 18 election.
The tax — at 20 cents a bag — has been controversial. Last July, the Seattle City Council voted 6 to 1 in favor of the tax. The tax is designed to decrease plastic pollution and help small store owners. Stores that generate more than $1 million in annual gross revenue will be required to pay the city 15 of the 20 cents collected.
“The bag fee will actually generate revenue for small stores with less than $1 million annual revenue because they are allowed to keep all of the funds collected for the bag fee,” said City Council President Richard Conlin, the sponsor of the original ordinance.
However, implementing the tax may not be smooth. “I think the major impact on shop owners is going to be the slowing down at the cash register and having to deal with a new taxing system,” said Peter Nickerson, an economist with the Northwest Economic Policy Seminar.
Seattle Councilmember Jan Drago was the single dissenting vote against the ordinance. “It hurts seniors and low-income residents the most, and it is an administrative burden on small businesses,” said Drago. “I believe we should use education and encouragement to reduce our plastic bag use, or else ban them outright.”
Although the tax will offset the expense of plastic bags, Asian grocery, supermarket, and convenience store owners have expressed concerns.
Duc Tran, the owner of the Viet-Wah supermarket chain, strongly opposes the bag tax.
“[First], the shopper will have to pay more taxes, which is unnecessary. Second, supermarkets need to provide plastic bags to [customers] for the wet products,” said Tran. “Finally, we don’t need [the] government [spending] money to create more bureaucracy to collect more taxes.” Supporters of the tax hope it will encourage people to use reusable bags.
“For shoppers, passage of the fee will mean more of a small behavior change than a real cost,” said Conlin. “Most people will opt to use something again and again such as a bag they already own, or a new reusable bag, rather than pay 20 cents for every disposable bag they take from the store. However, unlike with a bag ban, those plastic bags will be available if the shopper so chooses.”
In contrast to mainstream supermarkets, many of which sell reusable shopping bags, many shoppers of Asian supermarkets and grocery stores in Seattle do not bring their own reusable bags. Asian markets don’t usually sell reusable bags either.
“I think 20 cents is too expensive,” said Jon Crispala. “I reuse my plastic bags. This tax would be really inconvenient and it just doesn’t make sense.”
Some store owners are concerned that the tax will be an unnecessary burden on their shoppers.
“I’d rather pay the three cents a bag than ask my customers to pay twenty cents for a bag,” said Michael Thai, owner of Vina Market. “I see providing bags as a service to my customers.”
“The tax is certainly regressive so low-income people will be hit harder,” said Nickerson.
Aimee Pham, a cashier at Phnom Penh Supermarket, said she did not know about the upcoming vote on Referendum 1.
“Our customers will not want to pay this tax,” said Pham. “They won’t want to pay 20 cents for a plastic bag. The elderly will especially not remember to bring reusable bags.”
Some disagree. “I’m bothered by the response, ‘I forgot’ [or] ‘I can’t remember,’” said Jolene Jang. “That’s bull. People … are capable [but] lazy.” Jang is a strong supporter of the bag tax. “If there is a consequence, then people will remember [to utilize reusable bags]. We are so lucky to live in America. Let’s not complain about the small stuff. If the king of massive plastic bags, China, can outlaw plastic bags, we can at least reduce our consumption.” ♦
Dr. Julie Pham is the managing editor of Nguoi Viet Tay Bac newspaper. To read this story in Vietnamese, visit www.nguoi-viet.com.
Pham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.