Seattle voters will decide today if they are willing to pay 20 cents for each disposable bag they carry out of a grocery store—paper or plastic. Many residents of the eco-conscious city already opt for their own reusable cloth shopping bags; could a financial incentive encourage more to follow suit?

Last July, the city approved the tax (or "fee" depending upon whom you ask), which was set to go into affect in January. But opposition—mainly supported by $1.4 million from the American Chemistry Council, the lobbying arm of the plastics industry—has kept the tax at bay, and caused the Seattle City Council to finally put the question to its people.

"This amount of money is about bullying public officials," Rob Gala, a spokesman for Seattle Green Bag Campaign, told the Associated Press. "They're trying to send a message to elected officials across the country who are thinking about similar measures."

The trend in reusable bags has picked up steam in the past year, with Washington, D.C., and San Francisco passing bag fees or bans. Plans were proposed, but later rejected, in New York City and Philadelphia. Momentum is also picking up outside the U.S.: China maintains an outright ban on plastic bags, and Ireland charges a 15-cent fee for their use.

Proponents worry if today's vote goes the way of the plastics industry, other cities will cease contemplating the charge. On the other hand, if Seattle's Referendum No. 1 is approved, the cloth culture could catch on. And in Seattle, the approximately 360 million disposable grocery bags that are used every year would be cut by half, according to the city. (An estimated $3 million could also be raised, half of which would fund the administrative costs of the measure's implementation.)

But is such a "punitive tax" necessary to discourage disposable bags? Even before any fee has been put in place, "you've seen a large up-tick in the use of reusable bags," Adam Parmer, a spokesperson for the campaign against the referendum, told Seattle's KPLU radio station.

Others suggest "the measure is more symbol than substance," reports KPLU. Peter Nickerson, a consultant and former economics professor at Seattle University, told the radio station he doesn't believe eliminating the bags will make much of a dent in landfill waste. (According to the Washington Policy Center, a nonpartisan research center, the fee would reduce yearly garbage in the city by 0.14 percent.) It could even backfire, says Nickerson, with people looking to heavier plastic bags for trash liners and pet waste after their stash of thinner grocery bags is depleted.

Last July, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels praised his city's recently approved tax. "The answer to the question paper or plastic has officially become 'neither,'" he told the Seattle PI. "The best way to reduce waste is not to create it, and today, we have made that a little easier in Seattle." By the end of the day today, we should know if he spoke too soon.

Picture by seanami via Flickr