OLYMPIA — Washington is on the cusp of outlawing thin plastic carry-out bags and promoting paper bags as an alternative.
A bill imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags is on its way to Gov. Jay Inslee. The measure, if signed, would preempt similar prohibitions in force in four cities in Snohomish County.
And, as a result of late changes, Senate Bill 5323 also aims to help paper mills wishing to boost their production of paper bags in anticipation of greater demand for them when the new rules take hold.
As proposed, customers who do not bring in their own bag could purchase a paper one or a reusable plastic bag for eight cents. In time, retailers must charge a higher price for those thick plastic ones.
Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, the prime sponsor of the legislation, said the bill ended up better with its support of the mills which are critical to the economies of rural communities.
“I think it’s the first of its kind in the country,” she said. “In my mind this is a bill that I’m more excited about because there is a path and a plan to reducing plastic.”
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, championed the companion bill in the House. As an Edmonds City Councilman, he led the city’s effort to outlaw single-use plastic grocery bags in 2009. Edmonds was the first municipality in the state to enact such a ban.
“This is a huge win for the environment,” Peterson said. “This will be the best bill at getting rid of plastics in the country.”
The legislation passed on votes of 33-15 in the Senate and 67-29 in the House.
It would ban stores from giving out single-use plastic carryout bags and require retailers to charge eight cents for approved bags. If it is paper, it must be made of at least 40% recycled material. If it is plastic, it must be a minimum thickness allowing for use multiple times. Under the bill, in 2026, the price for a plastic bag will rise to 12 cents.
Small plastic bags used for items such as produce, meat, fish, flowers, and bulk items would be exempt as would disposable bags used for things like newspapers, dry cleaning and bakery goods.
If it becomes law, the new rules would take effect Jan. 1, 2021 and preempt existing bag bans in Edmonds, Mukilteo, Snohomish, and Everett and a couple dozen other cities in Washington.
For residents in those Snohomish County cities, the biggest change will be the cost of a bag.
In Edmonds, there is currently no charge. In Mukilteo and Everett, it’s a nickel a bag right now.
“We were supportive of that legislation because we think it is good to have common rules throughout the state to avoid confusion between customers and retailers,” said Bob Bolerjack, legislative affairs director for the city of Everett.
“The additional three cents we think is just an extra incentive for people to remember to bring their own bag so we don’t see that as a problem,” he said. “We think that the retailers will be able to adjust relatively easy to that.”
In Snohomish, the charge is a dime. Under the bill, retailers in cities with a higher per-bag charge can keep collecting that amount until 2026 when they must adopt the differential pricing for paper and reusable plastic bags.
Snohomish Mayor John Kartak said he isn’t a fan of his city’s ban but its residents wanted it and he respects their decision. And though he generally doesn’t support the state preempting the right of cities to adopt their own regulations, in this instance “it makes better sense for the state than a little city like Snohomish.”
The legislation was a priority of the Senate’s Democratic majority. They passed SB 5323 in 2019 but the House did not. Senators passed it again on the third day of the 2020 session and waited while it crept along in the House.
The breakthrough came March 7 when an amended version crafted by Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, cleared the House. The Senate concurred with those changes a couple days later.
Chapman kept intact provisions concerning allowable and banned bags. He came up with the language aimed at assuring steady demand for paper bags made from recycled materials produced at mills in Port Angeles and Port Townsend.
Under the bill, the state is to expedite processing of permits from any existing mill looking to expand its manufacturing set-up to enable greater production. He also crafted the two tiers of pricing for bags that will take effect in 2026.
“After five years, paper will be the defacto choice over thick plastic bags,” he said. “I think it ended up being a good bill that all sides could support.”
Peterson agreed. Getting environmentalists, owners of large and small grocery stores, pulp and paper mill workers, and plant operators on board with the final product made it stronger legislation and earned votes of a few Republicans.
”It’s been a journey,” he said. “We have a better bill this year than we did last year.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.