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Statewide ban on single-use plastic bags finally taking effect

A store clerk puts plastic bags filled with groceries into a customer's cart.
Kathy Willens
The Associated Press file
Starting Oct. 1, single-use plastic bags like the ones you get at grocery stores or with takeout orders will be prohibited in Washington state.

A ban on single-use plastic bags that was originally scheduled to begin on Jan. 1 will go into effect Friday across Washington state. The implementation was delayed amid pandemic-related supply-chain concerns.

The ban applies to thin plastic bags from restaurants, grocery stores and retailers large and small. They must instead offer their customers thicker reusable plastic or paper bags, for a fee that covers their costs and is also designed as an incentive for shoppers to bring their own bags.

Gov. Jay Inslee postponed the new law during the early months of the pandemic. A shortage of compliant paper or plastic bags emerged. Supply-chain issues caused that shortage — and continue to plague many sectors.

"But the bags have definitely rebounded,” says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington. Her group banded together with other nonprofits to get the law passed.

“In fact, we have heard that the laws being passed in Washington and other states have actually spurred more recycled content mills, pulp and paper mills, for example, bringing on new lines. So there's actually been a resurgence of some facilities due to all the bag laws,” Trim says.

Community-based efforts led to statewide ban

Washington was the eighth state in the nation to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastics. Trim says Washington’s law grew out of a movement, in which dozens of communities passed local laws, banning single-use plastics to steer people toward reusable totes or paper bags. Edmonds was the first, followed by Seattle, in 2008. As awareness grew, the policies spread all over the state.

"By the time the statewide bill passed, there were 39 local ordinances that had addressed bags which represented over 30 percent of the population of Washington,” Trim says.

Grocery stores came on board, saying one uniform policy would be easier to enforce. Trim says that same logic applies to continuing efforts for a nationwide ban.

We would have significantly less consumer confusion and we would have a big reduction in the use of plastics and the potential impacts of that,” Trim says. “In Washington state, two billion plastic bags are estimated to be used per year.”

That’s two billion plastic bags annually – before any of the local bans kicked in – that will now no longer be in use.

Hard to recycle, single-use plastic pollutes water and harms marine wildlife

Washington State’s Department of Ecology says plastic bags cause pollution other than the obvious litter.

The department says harmful chemicals are released when plastics are made, used, burned or slowly disintegrate. The bags are not easily recycled and clog sorting machines, which puts workers at risk.

“Single-use plastic bags are not easily recyclable, which makes managing them at the end of their lives almost impossible,” said Laurie Davies, manager of Ecology’s Solid Waste Management Program. “Reducing their use will protect our rivers and streams and help our recycling system run more efficiently.”

Some single-use plastic bags are allowed under the new law, including plastics to wrap meats and produce, prescription bags, and newspaper or dry-cleaning bags.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to
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