Plastic bags may soon be outlawed

Town and Country Market now offers plastic bags, but supports a plastic bag ban if a pass-through charge is included in the ban.  - Richard D. Oxley
Town and Country Market now offers plastic bags, but supports a plastic bag ban if a pass-through charge is included in the ban.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley

Council discussed a proposed ordinance to ban plastic bags on Bainbridge Island Wednesday and its possible effects on island retailers.

“The goal is to eliminate specifically the use of the ‘single-use plastic bag’ because these bags are so prevalent, so thin and poorly made that they often cannot be used again,” said Council Member Kirsten Hytopoulos. “…(the bags) are more likely to wind up in waterways.”

Hytopoulos said that one goal of the ordinance is to encourage the state to enact a statewide ban by following the example set by some of its cities, including Seattle, Bellingham, Edmonds and Mukilteo.

Curbing the influence of plastic on the environment is central to the ordinance’s purpose and cites both the resources used to manufacture and dispose of plastic bags, and the mounting concern over plastic products polluting Puget Sound and “posing a threat to animal life and the natural food chain.”

While the ban’s aim is to foster a healthy environment, the ordinance will also affect island retailers, many of whom will have to transition from cheap plastic bags to paper options.

“I am bringing forward an ordinance almost identical to Seattle because it has been thoroughly vetted by that city’s legal department and their community and retailers, and as such, we aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel,” Hytopoulos said.

Hytopoulos told council she has received considerable support from the community for the ban since proposing the idea. Support, she said, includes 79 emails from community members, an island neighborhood that submitted signatures for the ban, and support from some in the local business community.

“This is low hanging  fruit, a no brainer,” Hytopoulos said. “This is something that has been happening around the world for years now.”

The bags in question are 2.25 millimeters thick, or less, and are currently provided by some retailers on the island, such as Safeway, Town & Country Market and Rite Aid, as carryout bags for purchased items. Thicker and stronger plastic bags, such as those commonly provided by the many boutique stores on the island, are not included in the ban.

In addition to the ban on plastic bags, retailers would be required to implement a “pass-through charge” of no more than 5 cents on the common 1/8-barrel size recyclable paper bags also used for carrying purchased items. Customers on food assistance programs would not be required to pay the pass-through charge.

The pass-through charge is something stores such as Town & Country would like to see if a plastic bag ban is implemented.

“The reason we support a plastic bag ban that includes the pass-through charge is because our paper bags cost us more than four times the price of plastic bags,” D’Onofrio said. “That would quickly add up to a large amount of money if all those customers were to switch over to paper bags. The nickel offsets some of that extra cost.”

Hytopoulos also said that while the fee would help counter the added cost to the retailer, it also is designed to encourage the use of reusable bags. Town & Country currently subtracts a nickel off their customers’ bills when they use a reusable bag, and the market plans to continue this practice should a ban be passed.

The Town & Country Market store in Ballard will be affected by a plastic bag ban when Seattle’s law goes into effect in July. According to D’Onofrio, the company doesn’t expect any complications with the transition.

If council passes the ban, there will be an implementation period to allow retailers to transition to an island without plastic bags being offered at a checkout counter. At the meeting, Hytopoulos suggested that this period will be roughly six months.

Currently, the only option for islanders to dispose of plastic bags is through the trash—handled by Bainbridge Disposal—or at recycling bins in front of Town & Country and Safeway. Bainbridge Disposal, sends the bags out with the trash and doesn’t recycle them. According to D’Onofrio, the plastic collected from Town & Country's recycle bins is sent to the company’s distributor, which recycles it to make more plastic bags.

However, recycling may not be making as much of an impact as some would like. According to a study released by Environment Washington on Feb. 14, “A Solution Not in the Bag: Why Recycling Cannot Solve the Plastic Bag Problem in Washington,” plastic bag recycling efforts are not keeping up with the pollution caused by the bags.

It states that fewer than 5 percent of plastic bags in the U.S. are ever recycled, and  that Washington alone uses more than 2 million plastic bags annually. The study also claims that 70 percent of Washington’s recycling companies would like plastic bags removed from the waste stream because the bags can cause problems at recycling facilities and get tangled in machinery. This adds wasted time and costs to the recycling companies.

“This (ban) isn’t going to eliminate some enormous portion of the plastic we use on the island,” Hytopoulos said. “But what it will do, is cause the conversation to happen. It would cause the cessation of using millions of plastic bags on this island alone every year.”

The ordinance will now be addressed in coming council meetings where the public can further comment on the issue.

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