The Ellensburg City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance on Monday night that would impose a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags within the city.

The bag fee, added to the grocery bill, is subject to sales tax. The 5 cent fee would stay with the retailer. The city would collect the sales tax on the bags.

The ordinance requires public outreach and education, and would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2018.

The council has been discussing the potential for regulating single-use carryout bags since earlier this year. The discussion started in 2015 with the city’s Environmental Commission. Council members voted 6-1 during the first reading of the ordinance, and Chris Herion voted against it.

The ordinance will go through a second reading at the next Ellensburg City Council meeting on Nov. 7.

Public comment

Only one community member spoke to the issue during public comment. Larry Lowther, with Our Environment, reminded council members of the reasons why they brought the issue forward about a year ago.

“We have a particular problem that we have a lot of people in this world, over 7 billion going on 9 billion, so the problem of waste is monumental,” he said. “Non-biodegradable plastic is a particular problem. It’s been battling our streams and oceans and something needs to be done about it. It does affect the wildlife in our waters and oceans.”

Lowther acknowledged that putting a fee on the carryout bags will not solve the problem completely, but is a step in the right direction. He also reminded the council of the petition Our Environment submitted, which had over 1,000 signatures of people supporting action on plastic bags.

Council opinions

Council member Jill Scheffer said she has talked with many people in the community who are in support of the fee. She also suggested the city partner with local environmental and community groups for the outreach and education piece.

“I’m interested in making sure that folks understand this is an incentive program to use reusable shopping bags,” she said. “It’s not a penalty or punishment or a tax. It’s an incentive to make better lifestyle choices not just for the environment, not just for wildlife, but for public health, for human health and just being good global citizens.”

Council member Chris Herion acknowledged that there are people on both sides of the issue and tried to speak for the opponents.

“I think we’d be remiss as representatives if we didn’t recognize there were opponents as well,” he said.

He posed questions he’s been hearing people ask, such as why does the council know what’s best and what is the logic of imposing a fee versus having the courage to ban bags. He also asked why the council couldn’t wait another year and try an educational approach and then make a decision.

City Mayor Rich Elliott reminded Herion that the council was elected by the people in Ellensburg to make decisions for them.

Elliott said the council has outlined more than a year of public education, and by the time Jan. 1, 2018, rolls around people will know what their options are.

City Attorney Terry Weiner said an initial estimate for the outreach and education campaign is $1,500 which will pay for direct mailing and flyer inserts and some newspaper advertising. The city also will use social media.

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