msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/19/2011 7:07:04 PM ET 2011-12-20T00:07:04

The Seattle City Council voted Monday to ban single-use plastic bags from groceries and other retail stores, joining a growing trend among cities that embrace green values.

The ordinance, which was approved unanimously following months of discussion and debate, included a provision to charge a nickel fee for the use of paper bags, to encourage people to bring their own bags when they go shopping.

The paper bag fee is not unique. In Washington, D.C., businesses that sell food or alcohol must charge 5 cents for each carryout paper or plastic disposable bag.

Seattle's residents use 292 million plastic bags and 68 million paper bags a year. The ban is expected to reduce pollution, free up landfill space and improve the environment. About 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Nearby communities such as Mukilteo, Edmonds, Bellingham and Portland also have banned plastic bags.

Numerous municipalities across the country — including Eugene, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Jackson, Wyo. — are also considering laws to restrict the use of plastic bags. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to enact a ban in 2007.

The Seattle council voted to charge a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in 2008, but the plastics industry spent $1.4 million backing a referendum to overturn it. Voters defeated that fee in 2009.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, the bill's prime sponsor, said he felt the months of work on this proposal, with lots of input from both businesses and environmental groups, resulted in an ordinance that will work for everyone.

He noted that low-income people who can show eligibility in a food assistance program will not be charged the paper bag fee.

Council President Richard Conlin commended the council and advocates for the positive way the ordinance evolved and the substantive public involvement in the process.

"It's going to really make a difference for our environment," he said.

During a short public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, four people dressed as "bag monsters" in costumes made from plastic bags serenaded the council with a holiday tribute. Only one person spoke out against the ordinance, saying she wondered if the ban would really help the environment and remove plastic already in the Puget Sound.

An industry representative Monday said no decision has yet been made about whether to challenge the new ban. He told The Seattle Times a statewide approach that educated consumers about recycling and reducing litter would be more effective.

"This is bad policy for the environment and the consumer," Mark Daniels, vice president for sustainability and environmental policy for Hilex Poly Company, told the newspaper. "Seattle is going about this the wrong way and misses the opportunity to really tackle the greater issue of litter through a statewide comprehensive recycling program."

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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