Washington Enacts Statewide Plastic Bag Ban
Editor's note: In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-82 et seq., temporarily delaying the effective date of the statewide single-use plastic bag ban. This proclamation expires September 30, 2021 (see Proclamation 20-82.2), meaning the plastic bag ban takes effect October 1, 2021.
The plastic bag been has been codified as chapter 70A.530 RCW.
Not long after issuing his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Governor Jay Inslee signed ESSB 5323 into law, which bans retail establishments from providing single-use, plastic carryout bags. The new law goes into effect January 1, 2021. Retailers will have one year from this date to use up any inventory of plastic bags, unless restricted by a preexisting local ordinance. Permitted carryout bag options include paper or reusable bags, which must meet minimum standards set by the state.
For the purposes of these new regulations, a retail establishment is defined as:
any person, corporation, partnership, business, facility, vendor, organization, or individual that sells or provides food, merchandise, goods, or materials directly to a customer including home delivery, temporary stores, or vendors at farmers markets, street fairs, and festivals.
In some cases, the state’s definition of a retail establishment differs from local ordinances. The types of businesses included under the new state definition are more comprehensive: notably, including restaurants that were not previously included in all local policies.
The new law will also require retailers to collect a pass-through charge of $0.08 for every paper or reusable bag provided to customers. This pass-through charge will increase to $0.12 per bag starting January 1, 2026. These are to be considered taxable retail sales and the details of all charges must be clearly shown on customer receipts. Retailers are not to collect pass-through charges from customers using voucher or electronic benefits programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Banning plastic bags statewide is anticipated to result in increased usage of paper bags. To accommodate this increased demand, this bill establishes an expedited permitting process for expansion or reconfiguration of existing pulp and paper mills. This will remain in effect until June 1, 2025.
Why Ban Plastic Bags?
Single-use plastic bags present many challenges for municipal waste handling. The significant quantity of bags goes against many local efforts to reduce the overall volume of waste generated. Additionally, plastic bags are often incorrectly placed in curbside recycling bins. This pollutes the waste stream and makes the processing of recyclables costly and challenging for facilities. In many cases, single-use plastic bags don’t make it into the waste stream at all. This contributes to the large volume of plastics, roughly eight million tons, that end up in the world’s oceans every year. Once this happens, the plastics break down into tiny particles, resulting in the bioaccumulation of toxins throughout the food chain. This results in species loss, contamination of groundwater, and health hazards for people.
The Rise of Plastic Bag Bans
An increasing number of local and state policies seek to tackle this issue by banning single-use plastic carryout bags in retail establishments. In 2009, Edmonds became the first jurisdiction in Washington to implement a plastic bag ban, after the Edmonds City Council found that residents were using approximately eight million single-use plastic bags per year, creating a threat to public health and the environment. Since then, over 30 cities, towns, and counties in Washington have implemented some form of bag ban and/or fee. The specifics of these policies vary but most involve a ban of single-use plastic bags, standards for acceptable substitutes, and a per-bag charge for customers.
Implications of ESSB 5323 for Local Ordinances
Any carryout bag ordinances enacted by a city, town, county, or municipal corporation as of April 1, 2020 are preempted by ESSB 5323. The effective date for such preemption is January 1, 2021. Local ordinances that require a pass-through charge of $0.10 will be preempted in all aspects except for the established charges. The $0.10 charge will remain in effect until the statewide increase on January 1, 2026.
COVID-19 Impacts to State and Local Policies
Due to health concerns and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, local and state governments across the United States have suspended their plastic bag bans or are currently not enforcing them. Retailers have also recently established policies restricting or prohibiting the use of reusable bags in their stores. In most cases, these policy changes are expected to persist for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.
Local policies in Washington have been impacted in different ways. For instance, retailers in Seattle are encouraged to continue to follow the regulations even though there is currently no enforcement. Meanwhile, other jurisdictions, including Kitsap County and Lake Forest Park, have suspended their ordinances altogether.
For more information on newly passed legislation following the 2020 Regular Session, see 2020 Legislative Update — The Big List.
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