Five ideas that are less dumb than Seattle’s bag fee
Here in Seattle we have a healthy obsession with waste management. We’re nuts about recycling. The simple act of putting an aluminum can in the regular garbage will pretty much make a Seattlite break out in hives.
But some say this fetish may have gone a little too far with the August ballot measure on whether a fee should be charged for each new disposable bag used when purchasing groceries.
Now I haven’t decided how I’m going to vote on this one so you can truly call me neutral right now. On one hand I hate just about everything made of plastic and certainly have no love for plastic grocery bags. On the other hand, the implementation of this rule is pretty dumb. First of all, it’s a fee, not a true tax, so essentially it’s the government telling stores to charge more and then they can keep (some of) the money. I find this approach odd because we’re ALREADY paying for the cost of the bags when we buy food. If you need proof, just note that some stores already give you a discount for bringing your own bag.
I’d feel a lot more comfortable with a straight-up tax that is then used to support effective environmental measures in the city. Instead this fee feels like too much of a buy-off to the grocery stores. And while it may lower the number of bags used in the city, it’s really not going to make much of an impact on climate change. And really, at this point, if you’re not targeting climate change you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Is the bag fee REALLY going to move the needle on climate change or is this about politics and looking “green”? It’s about focus and prioritization.
And that’s why I’m torn. More than likely I’ll probably vote for the measure because I suppose it gets us a little bit closer to where we need to be. But, wow, what else could we be doing instead?
I decided to take a quick stab at some things I think the city could do that would have more impact on CO2 emissions than the bag fee and involve about the same scope as this fee. Here’s my top 5.
1. Modernize the city building codes to address climate change.
Codes across the country have been gradually tightening with respect to energy efficiency but there is opportunity here for Seattle to become a leader. And way too much emphasis is being put on LEED designs where things like recycled tile are allowed to make up for energy usage weaknesses. (Yes, it’s getting better, but it’s not there yet. I have some friends that work in a new state-of-the-art LEED building in Bellevue and they think it’s ridiculous their company can brag about its “green” status because of it’s recycled material usage while there are fans and swamp coolers running in nearly every cubicle.) We should encourage new office buildings to produce as much of their own energy as possible. For new homes, we should at least require they be ready to be add solar/wind to the mix by including wiring for inverters. Let’s require sloped roofs to be oriented to take maximum advantage of solar in the future. You could write books just on this topic, but you get the idea.
2. Ban leaf blowers.
It isn’t just the noise, although that is completely aggravating. They blow around spores, dust and germs, all while spitting out CO2 through the two-stroke exhaust. Read more. Yes, cleaning up leaves and cut grass may take a little longer with this crazy invention called a RAKE, but we are trying to LIVE here! As an added benefit, I’m pretty sure a good portion of my spring allergies are caused by these stupid devices so the sooner they’re banned the better. And we wouldn’t be the first.
3. Separate street garbage.
Yes, we’re totally anal about our home recycling, but Seattle’s downtown city garbage cans are still just one-stop cans. (The ones near my work at least.) If you visit Canada (I thinking of my last visit to Toronto), you’ll see some of the most complex garbage cans in the world, helpfully indicating where to put each type of garbage. But wait, you say, weren’t you just saying this waste management obsession was a misplaced focus? You’re right, but in this case, basic recycling would (I think) save the city quite a bit of processing time and fuel, so in the case of public garbage catching it up to home sorting standards would probably save quite a bit of carbon.
4. Tax bottled water.
OK so you want to attack a big source of plastic and actually have an impact? Let’s fish where the fish are — the water. I have no idea how much bottled water we’re consuming here, but I know it’s a lot. Everything from producing the bottles, trucking it in, driving it home in the trunk and disposing of the bottle has a cost — in dollars and carbon footprint. And that pile of empty water bottles filling our recycle bins is also a potentially big revenue driver for the city. And, unlike the bag fee, it has no impact on lower income residents, unless they’re buying bottled water, and please tell me they’re not. And it’s been done before. Shall we start with 10 cents? And even if that takes awhile, hopefully no city money is going toward buying bottled water for staff.
5. Lower the overhead.
So as we get ready to enter a clean energy century, we have to do some prep-work to get ready. Given that we’re in a very rough job market, I think spending some money on this preparation will never make more sense than right now. And before everyone jumps on my ass for noting that we’re already trying to figure out what services to cut, perhaps this is what we can spend all our bottled water tax revenue on.
Above I mentioned updating our building codes. But that only affects new construction and possibly major remodels. We need to get our older housing (and commmercial buildings) ready for modern energy. Now we can certainly spend a lot of money to generate a lot of power and not worry about it. But until energy generation gets MUCH cheaper, it’ll be much more cost-effective to lower the consumption of energy of each structure and then build out the production side to match. That means windows and that means insulation. It will mean converting oil and natural gas to electric heat. Yes, even natural gas.
So let’s prioritize. If we could come up with a sizable chunk of money, where would be the best place to spend it? The answer is we don’t know until we audit. Fortunately the data should be readily available via our utilities. I suspect through a very basic exercise of applying the home square footage against energy usage, we can target the homes most in need of upgrades. (It’s probably the same way the man tracks down grow rooms.) I believe that the old 80/20 rule applies in most cases and I think we can probably find and tighten up the worst homes within five years and have a massive impact.
Personally I believe if you did nothing but tax bottled water and turn those funds directly into home energy improvements, you’d have a measurable impact on climate change and position the city to take advantage of clean energy expansion in the future.