Each paper or plastic bag the local store uses to pack your groceries will cost you 20 cents, starting on New Year's Day.
The Seattle City Council this week became the first city in the nation to exact a financial penalty on shoppers by charging a fee on disposable bags.
Another new law bans some polystyrene food containers.
"These new laws are an integral part of the City's Zero Waste strategy — and translating Seattle's environmental values into concrete actions," said Council President Conlin in a statement. "They will help marine life, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and move our city toward a sustainable future."
One part of the new rules creates a fee of 20 cents for disposable shopping bags provided at convenience, drug, and grocery store cash registers, beginning on Jan. 1, 2009.
In response to citizen concerns, the Council amended the legislation to direct Seattle Public Utilities to help seniors and low-income households by distributing free reusable bags and working with food banks, people using food stamps, and shoppers receiving other forms of direct assistance.
The bag fee legislation helps businesses defray the cost of administering the program by allowing larger retailers to keep 5-cents of every bag to cover administrative costs. Small businesses, those grossing less than $1 million annually, will be allowed to keep the entire 20-cent fee.
The clear plastic bags used for individual items such as fruits, vegetables, and bulk items will not be subject to the fee.
Seattle Public Utilities estimates 360 million disposable bags are used in the city every year.
Supporters said the law focused on these stores because they are the source of more than 70 percent of all disposable shopping bags in circulation.
Experts say plastic bags are one of the largest forms of pollution in the world. An estimated 500 billion plastic bags are thrown out globally every year, making their way into urban and rural food chains and impacting health.
Fortune magazine last year reported that Ireland instituted a "PlasTax" of around 20 cents on each plastic bag, reducing refuse by about 90 percent.
In Seattle, the charge applies to both paper and plastic, and city officials hope it will reduce use of disposable bags by more than 50 percent, or at least 184 million bags annually.
Councilmember Tim Burgess described the move as "a market-driven strategy to protect the environment."
"These laws are a great example of how government can help the market to implement necessary environmental change," he said in a statement. "I support this particular solution because it maintains the ability of consumers to choose whether to use their own reusable bags, or pay a fee for disposable bags provided by the store.
Some of the funds generated will be used to offset a portion of the needed solid waste rate increase associated with new garbage contracts.
Part of the funds collected will also go to support Seattle Public Utilities' waste prevention and recycling programs.
By preventing the manufacture of this number of bags each year, Seattle officials said they will cut greenhouse gas production by nearly 112,000 tons over a 30-year period, helping marine ecosystems by eliminating some of the plastic that ends up in the ocean and the Puget Sound.
Another part of the new proposal will ban expanded polystyrene food containers from restaurants and packaging from grocery stores, beginning January 1, 2009. In July of 2010, foam trays for raw meat and seafood will also be banned and replaced with compostable alternatives.
Officials said expanded polystyrene foam not only adds to the waste stream, but also presents a hazard for birds because it breaks up into indigestible pellets. There are better products that are readily available and serve the same purpose.