The proposal for a statewide ban on thin plastic bags in retail establishments is quickly moving forward.
A vote is scheduled for Tuesday in the state Environment and Energy Committee, where lawmakers heard public comments from a packed chamber this week.
Proponents included lots of young people and their teachers, detailing their concerns about global pollution and health concerns from disposable plastics.
Utility workers testified about the ways thin bags damage recycling equipment. And several environmental groups detailed the harm they do in waterways when they break down into pieces that look like food to marine life.
“This is not a faraway problem,” said Nora Nickum, ocean policy manager at the Seattle Aquarium. “The Seattle Aquarium has been taking water samples in Puget Sound beneath the surface, and finds microplastic debris in every single sample. So many microplastic bits that it takes hours to count them on a single slide.”
The bill would require retailers to charge 8 cents for paper or thicker, reusable plastic bags. The pulp and paper industry opposes this fee, saying it will result in job losses for bag manufacturers. They want the bags to be free.
"We like the bill," said Sean O'Sullivan with the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Union. "But the one part we don't like and we'd like to have amended is to take that 8 cents out."
The industry is concerened about the impact on jobs in that sector, if people have to pay a new fee. They think fewer paper bags will be needed. A similar bill was introduced last year with a fee of 10 cents. Lawmakers went to 8 cents in response to those concerns.
But proponents say a fee is needed to incentivize customers to bring their own bags and to help retailers cover the new costs. Both sides agree that eliminating the fee would likely result in higher grocery prices, because stores have tight margins and need to cover their costs.
Both large chains and smaller, independent food stores now support the statewide proposal. They say that with about a third of the state already covered by a patchword of local ordinances, having one policy for all communities would help them streamline their systems. Many also say they agree with the ecological arguments.
Holly Chisa, with the Northwest Grocers Association, says her group's data from Pacifc Northwest communities that already have bag bans in place show the fees result in a need for more paper bags, not fewer.
"We are proud to purchase them here, by our local manufacturers. We support that industry. We want their product in our stores," she said.
She added that her association has advocated for tax reform to support the paper and pulp industry, which is down to four mills statewide.