'Reusable Bag Bill' proposes statewide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags

Washington lawmakers want to ban single-use plastic bag use, and the effort comes after many communities have already put local bans in place.

The proposal introduced Wednesday at the Seattle Aquarium, the Resuable Bag Bill, is to end single-use plastic bags at places like supermarkets, and will also require shoppers to pay for paper bags provided by a store, if they choose to use them.

The introduction of the proposal came with a bit of a performance in front of environmental groups and onlookers.

A man draped in 500 plastic bags emerged in front of the entire group of people who admitted it’s not every day that performance art is used to introduce legislation.

Washington Representative Strom Peterson didn't mince words in describing the effort that he is sponsoring: “This is effectively a ban on plastic bags.”

It's a message that was echoed by Washington Senator Kevin Ranker.

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“We will pass regulations that make sure in the future we are not using single-use plastic bags,” Ranker said.

Across Washington State, 23 local jurisdictions have passed ordinances regulating the use of single-use plastic carry-home bags.

Within the last two years, lawmakers in Olympia tried to place a 2-cent tax on single-use plastic bags. But that bill did not move forward out of committee.

“This year there have been 8 million metric tons of plastics going into our oceans worldwide,” Ranker said.

According to the campaign, the bill builds on local ordinances and includes these features:

  • Prohibits the use of single-use plastic carryout bags
  • Requires a pass-through charge of 10 cents on all paper carryout bags (to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable carryout bags).
  • In addition, the bill requires the use of recycled content bags and requires that compostable bags be green or brown tinted (to reduce confusion by consumers).
  • Exemptions include bags used for produce, newspapers, dry cleaning, small hardware items, prescription drugs, unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods, and frozen foods, meat, fish, flowers, and potted plants (and other items where dampness or sanitation might be a problem). Recipients of food assistance programs are exempt from the fee.

Even Chris Wilke of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says that plastic bags are a local problem. He said he learned the true extent of the pollution threat from plastic bags when his group counted which items they found the most during their cleanup efforts.

“Plastic bags were the ninth most popular item that we found,” said Wilke.

He said that cigarettes are still the number one item of pollution they find during their cleanups.

There has been pushback against tax and ban efforts. The plastic industry lobby has backed efforts like "BagtheBan" and a group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance. Both efforts are geared toward striking down taxes and bans on single-use plastic bags. The sites say that the bags can be recycled and reduce costs for consumers.

To offset the potential ban, the lawmakers supporting it say a 10-cent fee will be placed on paper bags that stores will keep to help fund the transition.

Ranker says a statewide ban has a long way to go, but environmentalists say the alternative is more daunting than losing the plastic.

Lawmakers could not say whether taxes would be collected on the fees on paper bags if their bill is made into law. They did say provisions would be made to help low-income consumers deal with the fees. Currently, the Washington Dept or Revenue does collect taxes on fees that are placed on paper bags in municipalities that have allowed such fees.

Editor's note: This story has been updated. A bill in Olympia to add a 2-cent tax on single-use plastic bags did not move out of committee.