SEATTLE — Leaders of this famously green city last year passed the nation's first grocery bag fee, and other cities around the nation quickly followed.
But the plastics industry has been fighting back, bringing lawsuits, aggressively lobbying lawmakers and bankrolling a referendum in Seattle to overturn the 20-cent charge. The measure goes before voters Tuesday, and polls show marginal support after the industry spent $1.4 million, outspending supporters about 15-to-1.
If the bag fee fails in an eco-conscious city like Seattle, observers say, it will be a tough sell elsewhere.
"This amount of money is about bullying public officials," said Rob Gala, a spokesman for Seattle Green Bag campaign, which has raised about $93,000 to back the fee. "They're trying to send a message to elected officials across the country who are thinking about similar measures."
In California, bag manufacturers successfully sued Oakland and Manhattan Beach after those cities banned plastic bags. The bag makers complained that officials didn't prepare a report detailing the environmental impact, such as the increased use of paper sacks.
"We've seen lobbying and blatant attempts to intimidate cities," said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay in Oakland. He likened the efforts to the tobacco industry's campaign to fight smoking bans.
"They're trying to force an expense on a city and hope that cities would drop their bag ban effort rather than have to pay from an environmental impact report," Lewis said.
The lawsuits are working, said Stephen Joseph, an attorney representing SaveThePlasticBag.com, which has sued Palo Alto, Calif., Los Angeles County and Manhattan Beach in the past year. The group includes California-based Crown Poly Inc., Command Packaging and Elkay Plastics Co.
While Manhattan Beach is appealing a court ruling in favor of the industry, city attorney Bob Wadden said he's heard from other cities that fear being sued if they pursue a similar ban.
Several states from Colorado to Texas to Virginia debated bag bans or fees this year, but no statewide ban or fee has been enacted. Washington, D.C., passed a 5-cent fee on paper or plastic bags, and the Outer Banks region in North Carolina banned plastic bags this year. But New York City dropped a proposed 5-cent bag fee in June, and Philadelphia rejected a plastic bag ban.
In Seattle, the Progressive Bag Affiliates, an arm of Virginia-based American Chemistry Council, has given the bulk of money to defeat the bag fee.
"Seattle residents have a right to know the facts about new taxes that will impact them, and public outreach is expensive," the council said in a statement explaining its contributions.
Seattle's fee is unusual in that it also covers paper bags, which the city determined are worse for the environment than plastic. Targeting only plastic bags, the city said, would push people to use paper, resulting in greater greenhouse gases.
The industry has latched on to that point in fighting ordinances elsewhere. Most measures have targeted only plastic bags, nearly 88 billion of which were sold in the U.S. in 2003, according to the latest figures from the International Trade Commission.
Plastic bag supporters say paper bags are more costly, take more energy and water to make, and release methane — a greenhouse gas — when they decompose. But plastic bags are recycled at a lower rate than paper sacks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and they take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
About two-thirds of the 360 million paper and plastic bags Seattleites use each year end up in the garbage, according to Seattle Public Utilities, even though the city accepts plastic bags in its curbside recycling program. Many places don't because the bags get tangled in recycling equipment.
Seattle officials say a fee would encourage more reusable bags, but Adam Parmer, a spokesman for Coalition to Stop the Bag Tax, said it's the wrong approach to changing behavior. He and the plastic industry support increased recycling.
Two groups representing independent and chain supermarkets say they're neutral and want voters to decide.
If the measure passes, Hanh Nguyen, 49, a Seattle social worker, says she would bring her own bags to avoid the fee. But she dislikes the charge, saying she already pays enough for other things like gasoline and food.
"I understand that it's supposed to help the environment, but still," she said.
Maggie Cambridge brought three reusable bags to Safeway recently but needed six more to carry her groceries home. It would cost her $1.20 under the ordinance, she said, "a hardship" on her fixed income.
"Everybody needs to be responsible, but charging isn't the way," said Cambridge, who is retired and plans to vote against the measure.
A telephone poll conducted last week by a research center at the University of Washington found 41 percent of 600 likely voters supported the measure. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Under the Seattle ordinance, small stores would keep the entire 20-cent fee. Stores with gross sales of more than $1 million a year keep 5 cents, and the rest goes to city recycling and environmental education programs.
"It's only 20 cents," said Nic Johnston, 24, a Seattle waiter who prefers reusable bags for their durability and convenience in toting other things, like his gym clothes. "It's going to stop people from using too many bags. I'm sure the fee will encourage me to bring my own."
Supporters point to success in Ireland, where a 15-euro-cent (21-U.S.-cent) bag tax in 2002 cut the use of disposable bags by 90 percent. That tax went up to 22 euro cents in 2007 after bag use crept up.
In San Francisco, the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, officials say all 140 grocery and convenience stores are complying with the 2007 ordinance, saving about 100 million bags a year.