This week the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance that, as of January, will require shoppers at grocery, drug, and convenience stores to pay 20 cents for each paper or plastic bag they use:

The city will distribute at least one free reusable bag per household, and it will consider providing more free bags to low-income shoppers.

"This is a voluntary fee," said Council President Richard Conlin, who worked with Mayor Greg Nickels on the proposal. "No one has to pay it. You only have to pay it if you choose not to use reusable bags."

Can we stop it with this "voluntary tax" nonsense already? If you put your groceries in an unapproved bag, the government forces you to pay the fee, so it's not voluntary. By Conlin's logic, sales tax also is voluntary (you don't have to buy stuff), as are alcohol and tobacco taxes (you don't have to drink or smoke), air travel taxes (you don't have to fly), gas taxes (you don't have to drive), property taxes (you don't have to own a house), and income taxes (you don't have to make money).

A more plausible argument would be that the bag charge is a sort of user fee, since people who use disposable grocery bags generate more trash, which the city collects and dumps. The problem (other than the government monopoly on trash collection) is that bag usage is not necessarily a good indicator of how much trash a household produces. It would make much more sense to directly charge people based on how much they throw away, which would give them an incentive to reduce/reuse/recycle in many areas of life, not just in their choice of grocery sacks. Instead Seattle charges by the container, no matter how full.

Then, too, if the issue is trash, the city should charge more for paper bags than it does for plastic bags, which, as New York Times science writer John Tierney notes in a column Katherine Mangu-Ward cited earlier today, "take up much less space in landfills." They also "require much less energy..to manufacture, ship and recycle," and "they generate less air and water pollution."

[Thanks to Paul in Seattle for the tip.]