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Originally published May 4, 2010 at 8:30 PM | Page modified May 5, 2010 at 11:19 AM

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Danny Westneat

The right shade of green

Betty Jo Petosa insists she's no environmentalist — she says she smokes too much to be considered green.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Betty Jo Petosa insists she's no environmentalist — she says she smokes too much to be considered green. But she can't get that gray whale out of her head.

" 'Look what we have done,' " she says. "That's what I keep saying to myself."

She's talking about the 37-foot whale that beached, then died, near West Seattle last month. Biologists who cut it open were shocked to find 3.2 pounds of garbage in its belly, from sweatpants to a surgical glove to 38 different items made of plastic.

It's that last bit especially — the plastic — that Petosa can't shake. Because she runs a business dependent on the stuff.

"I'd love to get all the plastic out of here," she says. "But it's an unreachable goal in my line of work."

Petosa founded Petosa's Family Grocer in Edmonds 24 years ago. Lately her store has become a sort of laboratory in how to cut back on plastic — as well as how complicated that can turn out to be.

Take plastic bags. It's been widely reported the gray whale had "more than 20 plastic bags" in its stomach.

That caught the eye of Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata. A 20-cent fee on plastic and paper bags was rejected by Seattle voters last year, but Licata said the whale is spurring him to raise the issue again.

That's good. I voted against the bag tax. I felt it was a top-heavy scheme with an unnecessary bureaucracy of "Green Fee" inspectors.

But saying "no" wasn't the same as saying we don't have a problem. That whale's gut can't be denied.

And it's warning that the problem goes well beyond grocery bags.

The whale sucked the following plastic off the Puget Sound floor: one grocery bag, a sandwich bag, a zip-lock, a produce bag, a juice pack, a plastic stake, some black plastic sheeting and about 30 other fragments from unidentifiable plastic bags.

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"I see in that whale what we're up against," Petosa, 65, says.

Two years ago, as Seattle was discussing taxing plastic grocery bags, Petosa went further. She banned them at her store.

"I thought it was simpler, and it didn't punish the customers with any fees," she says.

Shoppers could still get paper bags, which biodegrade but do take more energy to make. To curb their use, Petosa offered a 5-cent rebate for any bag customers brought with them to the store.

The result: Plastic-bag use went to zero. Paper-bag use rose initially but has steadily dropped since. Now half the customers bring their own.

Petosa's city, Edmonds, later became the first in the state to ban plastic grocery bags outright.

That's what Seattle ought to do now: Just ban plastic grocery bags. It's easy and doesn't cost much to anyone, except maybe the petroleum industry.

As for paper bags: "They're not perfect, but if one gets in the Sound it isn't going to harm anything," Petosa says.

It gets trickier after that. Petosa has experimented with corn-based "bio plastic" bags and trays for produce and meat. But they leak. She uses compostable sandwich bags in her deli, but some customers don't like them.

"Then there's the plastic bottle issue, which is even worse than the bags. I have no idea what to do about that," she sighed.

What Petosa is doing works because she's nudging people, not charging or haranguing them. She did this after she saw a feature on the huge mass of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. It hit her: We've gone too far.

"I think that whale is making that same kind of impression on people, more than all the government pronouncements combined," she says.

I don't know if we here in Seattle have ever looked to Edmonds before for green leadership.

But this grocer who insists she's no environmentalist would be a good place to start.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.


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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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