Consumers soon may no longer be able to choose plastic bags at retail stores in Washington state, thanks to a proposal that passed in the state Senate this week. Sponsored by Sen. Mona Das (D-47), SSSB 5323 would prohibit retailers from offering plastic bags to consumers and would require an $.08 charge for the use of paper bags. Its companion bill HB 1205 sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21) has cleared the necessary committees and been referred to the Rules Committee for review.
Currently, there are 20 cities with local plastic bag ban ordinances. In the 2015 legislative session, Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11) sponsored SB 5423 to ban plastic bags, but failed to land a public hearing in the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee.
If approved by the legislature, the ban would not preempt local ordinances. Violators would be subject to a $250 penalty. The bill would take effect 90 days after the end of session.
During the Mar. 5 Senate floor vote, SSSB 5323 received spirited pushback from some state lawmakers over the long-term implications of having government regulate product prices, particularly regarding an amendment proposed by Das and incorporated into the bill that lowered the fee from $.10 to $.08. Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) argued the fee is for all intents and purposes a tax, while Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) said it’s essentially mandating businesses make a profit off a specific product sold.
“We can’t be going this pathway in the legislature in how we micromanage the private economy,” he said. He added the proposals “leads me to believe that we actually are not living in a free market society in today’s Washington, but fast moving towards a state-run system where the legislature gets to pick prices for all of your commodities, determine what car you can buy, what kind of electricity you can get, how much we’re going to raise it up.”
Whether a plastic bag ban “works” may depend on how you define success. A 2018 study by Science of The Total Environment reported a 30 percent drop over a 25-year period in the number of plastic bags in the ocean waters around Norway, Germany, northern France and Ireland. Ireland and Denmark implemented plastic bag bans in 2003.
However, a 2010 University of Arizona study found that reusable bags can pose serious health risk to humans if not regularly and properly washed, a problem that disposable plastic bags avoid. The libertarian think tank Reason Foundation notes that plastic bags “constitute less than 1 percent of visible litter in U.S. cities,” while recent studies by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean hasn’t increased since the 1980s, “despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic.”
Some have also questioned whether reusable bags are indeed friendlier to the environment than plastic bags. A failed amendment to the bill introduced by Fortunato would have had the state Department of Ecology examine the life cycle of both, while a 2018 study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency concluded that plastic bags are actually better for the environment than reusable cotton bags (page 92).
SSSB 5323 has not yet been referred to a House committee.