This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
When Washington’s single-use plastic bag ban finally goes into effect this fall, shoppers at Thriftway stores in Tacoma and on Vashon Island may hardly notice.
It’s a big change for much of the state, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last year in the name of environmental stewardship, then postponed nine months by a more urgent priority: Distributing safe, one-time grocery bags during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But both Thriftway stores, locally owned and operated, continued their regular practice of not dispensing plastic bags at the checkstand; they went with the sturdier, easier-to-recycle brown paper sacks with handles. “It was kind of a no-brainer for us,” said Clay Gleb, who manages both stores after Stadium Thriftway’s long-time owner sold it early this year.
About the only thing they’ll do differently come Oct. 1 is collect an 8-cent fee on each paper sack requested by a customer, as mandated by the new law. And that will drive more shoppers to bring reusable cloth tote bags, which many stores started allowing again recently after Inslee relaxed some of his COVID emergency rules.
“I don’t expect a lot of heartache and stress for our customers,” Gleb told us Tuesday.
Untroubled Thriftway shoppers may be in the minority. State officials are busy combating misinformation, preparing for implementation of the ban (no grace period; compliance is expected immediately), and responding to anxious store operators and an apprehensive public.
“It’s a confusing time and I know people are upset,” Shannon Jones, a recycling coordinator for the state Department of Ecology, told us. “I get a ton of emails about it every day.”
Meantime, businesses must maintain a reliable supply chain of the thicker, reusable, legally compliant plastic bags. Supplies ran short this past year as production lines shifted to making masks and other PPE.
Clearly, public officials and store managers face a daunting task in the next two months and can’t afford to waste time.
For cities like Tacoma, where a Bring Your Own Bag ordinance went into effect four years ago this month, much of the outreach must focus on explaining how restrictions will change under state law, which preempts local rules. For example, the state law bans plastic takeout and delivery bags at restaurants, which Tacoma’s BYOB ordinance doesn’t prohibit.
As we see it, businesses shouldn’t wait until Oct. 1. The state has several good resources available now, including outreach kits in 17 languages.
Though it will take years to retire all single-use plastic products, the bag ban can’t come soon enough. If anything, the COVID lockdown only made pollution worse, said Lexi Brewer, chair of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, which advises the city on environmental strategies.
“I’ve definitely observed more plastic bags floating around my neighborhood,” Brewer told us in an email. Another major concern, she added, are thin bags clogging the machines in Tacoma’s commingled recycling system.
But having consistent state rules, rather than an erratic local patchwork, is worth waiting for, she said.
Keep in mind, too, that this is just the first in a series of crackdowns on non-recyclable materials that will roll out over the next several years. The 2021 Legislature adopted an ambitious package that Washingtonians are free to be annoyed by, but need to become familiar with.
As of next year, restaurants and food service businesses will be limited to giving out disposable serviceware (plastic utensils, straws, condiment packets and lids for cold drink cups) only when a customer requests them.
Starting in 2023, a minimum level of recycled content will be required in several types of other single-use plastics, applicable to trash bags and beverage bottles first and working toward milk containers in 2028.
Also in 2023, restrictions on the sale of polystyrene products will be phased in. First on the hit list: those pesky packing peanuts.
Admittedly, this is a lot for our state to enforce and our minds to process.
We can begin by embracing a statewide single-use plastic bag ban without further delay. Trailblazing cities like Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Olympia made the transition without riots in the streets. Local Thriftways did it, even during the pandemic, without riots in the aisles.
Our waste stream will be smaller, our parks, beaches and waterways cleaner, for the effort.