Tuesday, June 2, 2020
June 2, 2020

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Is Washington ready for a plastic bag ban?

A number of grocers, their patrons already on board as state again debates issue, but foes say proposal is flawed

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
9 Photos
Thicker plastic bags would still be allowed under the proposed plastic bag ban, although they would cost money.
Thicker plastic bags would still be allowed under the proposed plastic bag ban, although they would cost money. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

State lawmakers are recycling a proposed statewide ban on all single-use plastic bags at grocery store checkout lines — although for some Clark County shoppers, that wouldn’t be a big change.

The proposal, in the form of a bill that died in the Legislature last session, wouldn’t apply to the kind of bags used to hold fruit, vegetables or bulk items. It would also add an 8-cent charge for other bags, to encourage customers to bring their own reusables.

Several counties and cities have already passed their own versions of a ban, and the bill’s sponsors point to the growing number as a sign that the legislation stands a better chance this time around.

“At this time last year, 28 local jurisdictions already had single-use plastic bag bans on the books,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, said in an email. “Now, a total of 37 local jurisdictions have banned single-use plastic bags, which means this policy is only gaining momentum in the court of public opinion.”

Vancouver isn’t one of those local jurisdictions, but several local grocery stores have already abandoned single-use plastic of their own initiative.

Grocery Outlet

Two of the three Grocery Outlet locations in Clark County decided to ditch plastic bags last year, starting with the store on Mill Plain Boulevard. Managers Ken Cole and Carlos Rodriguez Vega said the decision was prompted by environmental concerns.

“We were putting almost three-quarters of a million plastic bags in the landfill each year just from our store,” Cole said.

Cole and Rodriguez Vega added a 3-cent-per-bag charge for paper bags, although they said it was intended as a financial incentive for customers to avoid them rather than as a way to make money — the store donates the 3-cent fees to Share in Vancouver.

The store sells reusable bags, but if customers forget to bring their bags, there’s an alternative: boxes. The Grocery Outlet staff collect medium-sized food shipment boxes and pile them in a pen near the front entrance, where customers can reuse them.

Reusable plastic bags with thicker lining cost 15 cents, and canvas bags cost $2.99, Rodriguez Vega said. Customers get a 3-cent credit for each bag they bring back, and the cardboard boxes are free. The result has been an uptick in both the number of customers who bring their own bags and the number who go for the free boxes.

“The vast majority of our customers just prefer a cardboard box,” Cole said.

Cole said he thinks Grocery Outlet’s results signal that a statewide ban would work as intended. Most customers have adjusted in the year since the change was implemented, he said, and even though the 3-cent charge for paper bags is small, it’s pushed a large number of customers to bring their own bags or use the boxes.

Other stores

Other grocers phased out plastic bags long ago, or never used them to begin with. Costco, New Seasons and Chuck’s Produce all fall into that category.

The two Chuck’s locations in Clark County have only offered paper bags since they opened, according to Larry Maresh, manager at the Mill Plain location.

Clark County’s biggest grocery retailers — Safeway, Fred Meyer and Walmart — still use plastic bags, but Safeway and Fred Meyer are both members of the Northwest Grocery Association, which testified in support of the bill last year. The biggest driver for major grocery chains is consistency, according to association spokeswoman Holly Chisa.

“It is much easier for retailers that operate all over the state to have one policy,” she said.

That’s especially relevant in Clark County, due to its proximity to Oregon, which passed a statewide bag ban of its own that took effect Jan. 1.

The Oregon policy isn’t identical to Washington’s proposed ban, but the contours are similar. The biggest difference is the charge for paper bags — Oregon sets the minimum at 5 cents, but Washington’s proposed law would set it at 8 cents.

The association will want to make sure there’s a sufficient supply of paper bags lined up at grocery stores for the switch, Chisa said, and there are limits to how far grocers would support a ban on plastics — ultimately there needs to be a quality barrier around food items for health reasons.

Bill progress

The bag ban bill, SB 5323, passed the Senate last year and appeared to have the support to pass the House, but it died at the tail end of the legislative session. Das said the bill ran into some obstacles and other issues ended up taking priority, but she said she’s confident that it can make it through this time.

“While I’m so proud of everything we accomplished last year, I obviously wanted this critical plastic bag ban legislation to have been acted on sooner rather than later, so I’m thrilled that we’re seeing action taken on it now,” she said in an email.

SB 5323’s sponsors reintroduced the bill on the first day of the 2020 session; it passed the Senate two days later on a vote of 30-19. Upon introduction in the House, it was referred to the Environment and Energy committee, following the same route it took last year, and it is currently awaiting further action.

Not all of last year’s opponents are satisfied. Todd Myers, director of the center for the environment at the Washington Policy Center think tank, was among those who testified in opposition to the bill last year, and he reiterated his concerns in an interview.

The driving impetus behind plastic bag bans tends to be concerns about ocean pollution, he said, but globally the U.S. isn’t among the biggest contributors to ocean plastic.

Myers argues that the thicker plastic alternative bags — and even canvas ones — aren’t necessarily better for the environment, both because they’re more energy-intensive to create and because they produce more waste per bag when they’re thrown out. The expectation is that people will only buy a few of those bags and then reuse them, but it takes a surprisingly long time to even things out, he said.

“If you used (an alternaconsistency, according to association spokeswoman Holly Chisa.

“It is much easier for retailers that operate all over the state to have one policy,” she said.

That’s especially relevant in Clark County, due to its proximity to Oregon, which passed a statewide bag ban of its own that took effect Jan. 1.

The Oregon policy isn’t identical to Washington’s proposed ban, but the contours are similar. The biggest difference is the charge for paper bags — Oregon sets the minimum at 5 cents, but Washington’s proposed law would set it at 8 cents.

The association will want to make sure there’s a sufficient supply of paper bags lined up at grocery stores for the switch, Chisa said, and there are limits to how far grocers would support a ban on plastics — ultimately there needs to be a quality barrier around food items for health reasons.

Bill progress

The bag ban bill, SB 5323, passed the Senate last year and appeared to have the support to pass the House, but it died at the tail end of the legislative session. Das said the bill ran into some obstacles and other issues ended up taking priority, but she said she’s confident that it can make it through this time.

“While I’m so proud of everything we accomplished last year, I obviously wanted this critical plastic bag ban legislation to have been acted on sooner rather than later, so I’m thrilled that we’re seeing action taken on it now,” she said in an email.

SB 5323’s sponsors reintroduced the bill on the first day of the 2020 session; it passed the Senate two days later on a vote of 30-19. Upon introduction in the House, it was referred to the Environment and Energy Committee, following the same route it took last year, and it is currently awaiting further action.

Not all of last year’s opponents are satisfied. Todd Myers, director of the center for the environment at the Washington Policy Center think tank, was among those who testified in opposition to the bill last year, and he reiterated his concerns in an interview.

The driving impetus behind plastic bag bans tends to be concerns about ocean pollution, he said, but globally the U.S. isn’t among the biggest contributors to ocean plastic.

Myers argues that the thicker plastic alternative bags — and even canvas ones — aren’t necessarily better for the environment, both because they’re more energy-intensive to create and because they produce more waste per bag when they’re thrown out. The expectation is that people will only buy a few of those bags and then reuse them, but it takes a surprisingly long time to even things out, he said.

“If you used (an alternative bag) every week for six years, you might break even,” he said.

Even paper bags might not be a great alternative, he said — they only need to be reused a minimum of three times to have a less substantial net impact than their single-use plastic counterparts, but most people tend to use them only once or twice, such as by turning used grocery bags into makeshift recycling bins.

The American Forest & Paper Association also testified in opposition to the bill last year, and the organization’s executive director of packaging, Terry Webber, reiterated his concerns about the current bill.

“The American Forest & Paper Association remains opposed to efforts to restrict access to a recyclable and renewable paper product that supports family wage union jobs at mills in Washington state,” he said in an email. “We are hopeful legislators will recognize that paper is not part of the plastic problem they are trying to solve.”

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