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Paper or Plastic? An Overview of Plastic Bag Bans in Washington State


August 17, 2016 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Licensing and Regulation

Paper or Plastic? An Overview of Plastic Bag Bans in Washington State

When you empty your grocery cart, does the store bagger ask: “Paper or plastic?” That question is becoming less common as communities across the state have begun to ban the use of plastic bags. Instead, you might now be asked: “Did you bring your own bags?”

This post aims to provide a general overview of what these bans look like, how effective they’ve been, and what authority cities and counties in Washington have to implement such bans.

Why ban them?

The website Plastic Bag Ban Report lists the Top Ten Reasons to Ban Plastic Bags, including that they:

  • Are a hazard to marine life, sea birds, and animals;
  • Do not degrade in the environment;
  • Add solid waste to landfills;
  • Are produced from non-renewable sources; and
  • They clog stormwater drains. 

According to a report from the City of Seattle, prior to its ban, over 292 million plastic bags were used annually in the city. The Worldwide Institute estimates that 100 billion are issued annually in the United States.

Are there reasons to keep using plastic bags?

An industry webpage, Bag the Ban, provides counterarguments to bans, including that:

  • Plastic bags make up only one-half percent of the U.S. waste stream;
  • They are reusable and recyclable;
  • A plastic bag requires 70% less energy and uses less than 4% of the water required to manufacture paper bags;
  • A bag ban can result in less business, more shoplifting, more theft of carts, and an increase in the cost of carryout bags; and
  • Reusable bags, if not washed, can harbor harmful bacteria.

Another industry webpage, About Plastic Bags, argues that:

  • 65% of the public use their plastic bags for trash disposal, as well as for other uses;
  • Plastic bags generate only 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions of composted paper; and
  • Recycled bags can be made into useful new products, such as building and construction products, low-maintenance fencing and decking, and new bags.

Local regulations

There are at least thirteen cities and one county in Washington that have adopted restrictions on a merchant’s use of plastic bags: Bainbridge Island, Bellingham, Edmonds, Issaquah, Kirkland, Lacey, Mukilteo, Olympia, Port Townsend, Seattle, Shoreline, Tacoma, Thurston County, and Tumwater.

Each jurisdiction’s ban differs slightly in its approach. Here’s a couple of examples: Seattle’s ordinance (Ordinance No. 123775) prohibits retail establishments from providing a single-use plastic carryout bag to any customer, although with some exceptions, such as for frozen foods, vegetables, and dry cleaning. In addition, retail establishments may only provide recyclable paper bags. Merchants must collect a pass-through charge of not less than five cents for each recyclable paper carryout bag provided customers.

Thurston County’s ordinance (Ordinance No. 14934) prohibits retailers from providing plastic shopping bags. It allows issuance of recyclable or reusable paper bags, but requires a minimum charge of five cents for each larger bags that is provided. Smaller paper bags can be provided for free or for a charge. A retailer may provide reusable plastic carryout bags (2.25 millimeters or thicker) with or without a fee. Larger paper bags must contain an average of 40% recycled fiber and display the recycled content on the outside of the bag.

How well are the bag bans working?

On July 1, 2016, Seattle Public Utilities issued a report on Seattle’s plastic bag ban ordinance, which concluded that the “ban has been effective in reducing the number of plastic bags distributed throughout the city, [but] there are also opportunities for improvement in compliance.” Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Almost 60% of convenience stores and over 80% of drug and apparel stores were found compliant, but less than 40% of grocery stores were compliant.
  • Larger stores were more likely to be fully compliant, while medium-sized, independently-owned grocery and convenience stores were less likely compliant;
  • Most stores were aware of the ban, but some were unaware of the requirement to charge a fee for paper bags.
  • Between 2010 and 2014, the amount of plastic bags in residential garbage declined from 262 tons to 136 tons. The numbers were even better in the commercial and self-haul waste stream; plastic bags declined from 273 tons to 59 tons, a 78% reduction.

The report also noted some concerns, however, including the following:

  • Reusable bags may become contaminated and threaten customers and retail staff.
  • Some stores have removed their plastic bag recycling containers, resulting in more bags going into the waste stream.
  • There has been an increase in flexible packaging, such as pouches containing food, which are not recyclable.
  • Some stores use green plastic bags, creating confusion with compostable bags and resulting in the contamination of composting facilities.

But, is a ban legal?

In Washington, it is likely that a court would find a bag ban supportable under the police power and consistent with the state’s efforts to reduce waste and litter. See, e.g.RCW 70.93.180(1)(c). However, no Washington appellate court decisions or attorney general opinions address plastic bag bans. There are a few reported cases from other jurisdictions, but none that I could find where a bag ban was struck down on substantive grounds. The typical challenge has been that a local ban is preempted by state law or the charge for a bag is an unauthorized tax.

In addition, attempts have also been made to legislatively address bag bans. In Washington, one bill (SB 5432) under consideration would, if adopted, prohibit a retail store owner or operator from providing a carryout bag to a consumer unless the carryout bag is a compostable plastic carryout bag, a recyclable paper carryout bag, or a reusable carryout bag. The bill would allow existing bans to remain in effect until 2020 and requires any new local legislation be consistent with the bill’s requirements.

Banning plastic bags is a legislative issue. If your jurisdiction is considering a ban and you have any questions, let me know below or contact me directly at psullivan@mrsc.org.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operation. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.

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