WA single-use plastic bag ban causes more waste than good


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Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag on Monday 12/14/15.

Mitchell Sissons of Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma puts customers groceries into a recycled plastic grocery bag on Monday 12/14/15.

The News Tribune, file photo

I know that I’m not the only one that relies on old shopping bags to fulfill a second life as garbage bags. In fact, grocery stores and restaurants have long been a primary source of trash can liners for many of my friends and family.

But ever since Washington state adopted a plastic bag ban, my garbage bag supply has been dwindling.

The law, enacted in January 2021, prohibits single-use plastic carryout bags in all food service businesses, festivals and markets. Instead, businesses may offer paper bags or reusable plastic bags for a charge of $0.08. Or shoppers can bring their own.

As a result of the ban, many Washington businesses have stopped offering bags at all. With shopping bags becoming increasingly uncommon, many Washingtonians will become unwilling participants in the retail garbage bag market.

Even when businesses do offer bags, reusable plastic bags and paper bags carry problems of their own.

“Reusable” sounds great, right? Actually, the term simply means that the bags have a thickness of 2.25 millimeters and contain a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled content. So, reusable plastic bags result in the consumption of even more plastic than single-use plastic bags.

And other than as trash bags, I doubt that reusable plastic bags see much “reuse.” Usually encrusted with food drippings or smelling of yesterday’s leftovers, they aren’t exactly substitutes for tote bags or purses.

My experience has been that more businesses offer paper bags than reusable plastic bags in the post-ban era. While paper bags make great receptacles for clean recyclables, they do not contain liquids well. Thus, they make poor trash bags.

To boot, paper bags are worse for the environment. Cutting down and processing trees requires water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. Paper bags have four times the carbon footprint of their plastic counterparts.

But won’t more shoppers bring bags to avoid the fee? I’m skeptical. Eight cents is hardly a deterrent for most customers. What else can you buy for eight cents? The value is difficult to register.

I agree with the law’s goals of reducing the amount of plastic headed to the landfill and recycling facilities and polluting waterways and roads. I’m on board with encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags. And I know that plastic bags are famously hard to recycle.

Yet waste processing facilities will be inundated and litter will exist even without single-use plastic bags. Other states and other countries will continue to make and distribute single-use bags.

At best, the ban achieves negligible environmental benefits. More likely, the ban creates a demand for less sustainable bags and decimates the trash bag supply of many.

As a similar saying goes, sometimes the path to waste is paved with sustainable intentions.

Erin Caldwell is a lawyer at Microsoft. When not at work or writing, she can be found foraging for wild blackberries and biking around the Sound.

This story was originally published September 22, 2022 5:00 AM.


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