Ready for a statewide ban on plastic bags?

Jul 5, 2012

If you’ve shopped in Seattle lately, you’re probably aware of the ban on lightweight plastic shopping bags that started July 1. Now, you have to bring your own re-usable tote, or pay five cents for a paper bag.

It’s the second law of its kind to take effect in Washington. And with five more recently approved in cities from Issaquah to Port Townsend, momentum is growing for a possible statewide ban.

You might be thinking, "Wait a minute, didn’t Seattle voters repeal a bag ban three years ago? What happened?"

They did. That law, from 2008, would have charged people twenty cents for forgetting to bring their own bags, and passed the fee on to the city. It was repealed in a referendum bankrolled by the plastics industry.

Then, Bellingham came up with an ordinance last summer that charged shoppers just a nickel for paper bags at the register and let the retailers keep the fee. Six months ago, Seattle’s city council followed suit. Robb Krehbiel, with Environment Washington, says that ignited a local movement that has reinvigorated the call to ban lightweight plastic shopping bags statewide.

"Seattle picked up on it and once Seattle started working on it, it just really caught wildfire,” Krehbiehl says.

Now in addition to Seattle and Edmonds, where bag bans are already in effect, similar laws have passed in Bellingham, Mukilteo, Bainbridge Island, Issaquah and Port Townsend.

Krehbiel says Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Friday Harbor and Anacortes are looking at joining in. With that kind of momentum, he thinks this is the year to go back to the legislature and pass a law that would make Washington the first state to ban plastic bags.

But, the plastics industry says banning the bags is shortsighted.

“It’s our job to educate the legislators and the consumers of the robust recycling infrastructure that is in place, ” says Mark Daniels, a Vice President for sustainability with the plastics manufacturer Hilex Poly.

They want to see more people using plastic take-back bins at retail stores. Daniels says bag bans discourage plastic recycling, because once a store stops providing the lightweight bags, industry no longer provides the bins.

He’s confident they can once again stop a statewide ban.

“Once presented with the facts, most legislators come to the realization that improving recycling, getting a public-private relationship to educate consumers on how, what and where to recycle these products, we win the day on that,” Daniels says.

He also says pound for pound, (because they weigh about a tenth as much) thin plastic bags have a lighter carbon footprint than paper ones, which the Seattle and Bellingham bag bans favor.

But environmentalists say right now, only about 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled. And in Seattle, the rates for paper recycling or composting are upwards of 80 percent.