OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers are moving to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags — legislation that would supersede Seattle’s local ban and increase the paper-bag fee to 8 cents.
The ban failed to make it through the Legislature last year, but lawmakers are trying again. The Senate passed the bill 30-19 last week, with two Republican lawmakers crossing party lines, and the bill now moves to the state House of Representatives.
Currently, 37 jurisdictions in Washington — most west of the Cascades — prohibit retail stores from distributing such bags, according to Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, the sponsor of Senate Bill 5323. Twelve of these local ordinances were passed just last year, most of them allowing for paper bags for 5- or 10-cent fees at customers’ requests.
SB 5323’s 8-cent fee on paper and durable plastic bags is a 2-cent decrease from last year’s proposed legislation. Lawmakers say the fee will act as a partial “cost recovery” for retailers who have to move away from cheaper plastic bags.
Regarding a statewide ban, Das said, “It’s time. It was time yesterday.”
On the floor of the Senate, she spoke of her time living in Ireland, where a fee on single-use bags changed her behavior “immediately.” She also said the public has seen enough pictures of wild animals being choked, tangled or killed by plastic in the ocean.
The bill would exempt some plastic bags like those used for newspapers and dry cleaning, or those necessary for sanitation purposes. Individuals reliant on food assistance programs like WIC or SNAP would also be exempt from the fee.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, said he doesn’t anticipate his Seattle constituents to be up in arms over the fee increase. Most of them, he said, support environmental justice, and don’t think of the fee as a burden.
In fact, last year in its annual report on the bag ban, Seattle Public Utilities recommended that the fee be increased to 10 cents.
Hasegawa, vice chair of the committee on Financial Institutions, Economic Development & Trade, thinks the bigger problem is figuring out what to do with existing plastic bags now that King County has stopped accepting them at recycling centers. Hasegawa said the state needs to look to more innovative solutions to plastic recycling, which could also provide new economic opportunities. Until then, he said, the ban is “the only thing we have.”
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, agreed, saying the bill is a “very modest” step to cure humanity’s “single-use plastic addiction.”
Now that the bill has been lobbed to the House, Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said its biggest opponent is the paper and pulp industry.
Although there is concern that a fee on paper bags will hurt paper producers, Peterson said he thinks the ban will benefit the industry by making paper bags more available to consumers.
During debate last week on the Senate floor, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, whose district has a long history of logging, echoed those sentiments, saying, “paper bags come from trees, and we like that.”
Ultimately, Ericksen did not support the bill, saying it was rushed and that other countries contribute more to plastic pollution than Washingtonians.
But environmental groups supporting the bill, like the Surfrider Foundation and Zero Waste Washington, say plastic bags are still causing real problems in the state, like clogging machines at recycling centers, forcing workers to stop and detangle plastic film.
The bill also imposes other recycling-related regulations, such as a ban on nonrecyclable paper bags, a mandate that paper carryout bags be compostable, and regulations on reusable carryout bags provided by retailers.
According to Peterson, the bill stalled in the House last year because it was put on the back burner as representatives focused on more significant environmental legislation. This session, he said, he is confident that it will be passed.