Washington’s Plastic Bag Ban: What You Need to Know
Plastic bags are found in unwanted places such as lakes, roadsides, and recycling sorting machinery. Washington's Plastic Bag Ban, passed by state legislation in 2020, aims to reduce this source of pollution by establishing minimum standards for bag use in retail establishments statewide. Going into effect in 2021, we will explore what it is, what the exceptions are, and why it is being implemented.
What is the plastic bag ban?
Beginning October 1, 2021, Washington state legislation (SB 5323) prohibits all retail and grocery stores, restaurants, take-out establishments, festivals, and markets from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, and requires retailers to charge for other bags.
For an 8-cent fee per bag, customers can purchase paper bags or thick reusable plastic bags. Stores will have the option to charge a fee for compostable bags. All fees collected are kept by the retailer to cover the cost of the bags.
The fee will increase to 12 cents per bag in 2026, so now is a good time to start using the reusable bags that are collecting in your closet! While some customers are already in the habit of bringing their own reusable bags on outings, this new law reinforces reuse and supports recycled content.
Exceptions to the ban
Washington is only banning single-use plastic carryout bags. The law does not apply to bags used prior to check out. While you still may purchase a box of plastic trash can liners, be sure to remember your reusable bag to easily carry them home!
- Bags used to package bulk items
- Examples: fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, greeting cards, nails, bolts, screws
- Bags containing items where dampness or sanitation might be an issue
- Examples: frozen foods, meat, fish, flowers, potted plants
- Bags containing unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods
- Bags containing prescription drugs
- Newspaper bags, mailing pouches, sealed envelopes
- Laundry and dry-cleaning bags
Fees will not be collected from those who use a voucher or an electronic benefits card issued by Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Food Assistance Program (FAP). This law also does not apply to food banks or food assistance programs.
Why ban plastic bags?
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, Washingtonians use 2 billion single-use plastic bags each year, which frequently contaminate the environment, recycling facilities, and compost facilities.
Plastic bags are made from petroleum-derived polymers, a material that microorganisms cannot naturally break down. Over time, plastic degrades into micro-plastic particles which infiltrate the food chain and harm wildlife and humans. Microplastics are less than 5mm wide and are found just about everywhere, including our drinking water, oceans, marine life, rivers, oceans, and even inside of us! Researchers from Arizona State University conducted a study and found plastic within every human organ examined. To learn more about issues surrounding plastics, you can watch PBS's documentary called The Plastic Problem. It takes less than an hour!
There is oftentimes confusion about the correct disposal method of plastic bags once residents are done reusing them. In Clark County, plastic bags can be returned to recycling collection stations at retail locations. If a resident doesn't drop them off for recycling, then plastic bags need to be disposed of in the trash. Plastic bags do not belong in your recycling cart at home.
When plastic bags contaminate recycling or composting facilities, it is costly from both a financial and efficiency standpoint. Film plastic easily gets tangled within sorting machines at recycling facilities, forcing productivity to halt in order to remove them by hand. When plastic bags contaminate compost, it undercuts the ability to use and sell the compost.
By following the lead of eight other states in implementing a plastic bag ban, Washington is building consistent statewide policy and enforcement. This policy will mitigate harmful impacts of disposable plastics on wildlife and the environment while also relieving pressure on waste management.