BYO Bag Tri-Cities

All you want to know about plastic bags in Washington State.

As part of Washington’s ongoing efforts towards ‘zero plastic waste’ by 2025, starting October 1, 2021, stores will discontinue providing single use plastic bags and a carry-home thick plastic bag or paper bag in any store in Washington state will cost 8 cents. In 2026, the fee will go up to 12 cents.

Plastic bags are a major contaminant in Washington’s recycling facilities, waterways, roadways, and environment. Banning single-use plastic bags is a small but critical first step towards tackling the plastic crisis. We put together the FAQ below.  For more information, see the Department of Ecology website HERE.

• Why are disposable plastic grocery bags being eliminated?

Every year Washingtonians use 2 billion single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags are a big problem in the recycling system Lightweight, single-use plastic bags can travel long distances over land, pushed by the wind like a tumbleweed. They are blown by the wind out of trash cans, garbage trucks, and landfills, and often do not stop until they reach a stream, river, or the ocean. 

They do not biodegrade, but instead break apart into smaller pieces and soak up toxins. Once they are consumed by fish, turtles, and whales that mistake them for food, those toxins make their way up the food chain. Birds often mistake shredded plastic bags for food, filling their stomachs with toxic debris.

Cities, counties, and recyclers are spending exorbitant amounts of time and money removing plastic bags from their recyclables stream, where bags have jammed machinery and added to the manual labor costs of recycling.

• What is the purpose or end result of this legislation?

Banning single-use plastic bags is a small but critical first step towards tackling the plastic crisis. The consideration and adoption of bag bans have already played a crucial role in drawing attention to the harms of plastic and have pushed people to examine their plastic consumption habits.

Where can I get a reusable bag?

Second hand stores and garage sales are a good source of inexpensive totes, and it makes more sense ecologically than buying new. Or make your own: get creative with anything you no longer want. Even some dog food bags work well, or coffee bags. Check out ZeroWaste tips for purchasing or making your own reusable bag HERE.

• How do we know that ‘banning’ these bags will not do greater harm?

A recent study, published 2019, from a researcher at the University of Sydney found that California’s bag ban led to a moderate increase in paper bag usage and pushed some customers to buy thicker plastic bags. The study suggests these thicker bags were purchased to replace the secondary use of free, single-use plastic bags as trash can liners or to pick up pet waste. As a comparison of weight, the study reported that 28.5% of the plastic reduced through a bag ban was offset by shifting consumption to other bags.

However, this means that the California bag ban did help reduce plastic bag consumption by 71.5% – a huge decrease. It also took 100% of those plastic grocery bags out of the recycling system, which had previously bound up machinery and increased costs. The ban also kept the bags from littering neighborhoods and the environment.

While the Sydney study is usually cited as a criticism of bag bans, it also shows how successful they are in reducing plastic bag use. Though it must be noted that while the study shows this success, it also indicates that bans don’t go far enough to end the plastic crisis.

• Who receives the 8 cents fee? What is it used for?

The businesses charging the fee will collect the revenue. They can decide what to do with it. For example, it may offset the extra cost of paper bags. 

The fee ensures that customers who bring their own bags don’t have to supplement the cost of other shoppers’ bags anymore. It encourages the use of reusable bags.

• Does the litter tax go away?

As of right now, no. The allocation of these funds was recently changed, so 40% of these funds now go to litter, 40% to waste reduction and recycling, and 20% to local governments. For 10 years, a large portion of the litter tax funds collected were diverted to WA State Parks. But in 2019, the funds were restored and made available for their original purpose. 

• Aren’t reusable bags worse for the environment?

Assumptions made in various studies comparing plastic, paper, and reusable bags are misleading, or are written in geographical locations that make them inapplicable to a specific state law.  The reusable bags are made from 40% recycled polyethylene and have a lower carbon footprint than ANY single-use bag after as few as 8 uses.  These bags have to be able to be used 125 times. They use 50% less energy, have 40% less impact on GHG emissions and solid waste resources, and use 30% less water. 

• Why don’t we do a better job in recycling these plastic bags?

When talking about sustainability, reduction is best, reuse is second best, and recycling is third best.  According to a state agency report, only 3% of plastic bags were recycled in 2009. Additionally, the market for recycled plastic bags is small, and there appears to be few major companies with a demand for used plastic bags. A 2012, American Chemistry Council report revealed that more than half (59%) of the recovered plastic bags and film in the US was exported to China.

• How is the effectiveness of this law measured in Washington State?

A report will be published in 2025. It will contain the effectiveness of the pass-through charge in relation to the reduction of total volume of bags and the increase of reusable carryout bags.

• Will reusable bags make me sick?

There are no credible studies making a connection between reusable bags and foodborne illness. Commonly-quoted studies, funded by the plastics industry, contain numerous flaws. One study simply shows that the same array of everyday bacteria found on our hands, clothes, and around our homes, can also be found on reusable bags. 

Using common sense, washing your hands, and cleaning your bags when they get dirty, virtually eliminates any risk of illness.  

In relation to COVID: the virus lives longer on plastic than fabric, and it’s easy to wash a fabric bag.

• Why does the government have to step in? Many retailers have their own zero waste goals already in their future plans.

This initiative was started by environmental groups and involved grocery associations: Washington food association, Hospitality association. 

A unified state wide policy is easier for retailers. Currently, 5 jurisdictions already charge 10 cents: Burien, Lake Forest Park, Snohomish, Bingen, White Salmon.

• What about low-income customers for whom a bunch of 8-cent bags can mean real money?

Customers who are part of the following programs are exempt: WIC, TANF, SNAP or FAP.