OLYMPIA — Single-use plastic bags at stores will be banned statewide starting next year and customers without reusable carriers will be charged 8 cents for paper bags under a bill signed Wednesday.
Gov. Jay Inslee called the bill, which had a contentious two-year journey through the Legislature, "a victory for our environment."
Banning the single-use bags, which he said are one of the most common items of litter and plastic pollution, will create consistency across the state, where some communities already have a range of restrictions and others have none.
It takes effect next year and pre-empts local bans some cities have passed in recent years. Shoppers will be urged to bring reusable bags, or can ask for paper bags, for which stores must charge 8 cents and collect sales tax.
Some Washington cities, and other places around the country, are pulling back on their existing bans, citing fears that the cloth reusable bags could spread the novel coronavirus to store employees if they haven't been properly sanitized between uses.
Olympia and Kent have suspended their bans temporarily, and the Massachusetts governor temporarily banned reusable bags as part of efforts to fight COVID-19.
A story in Politico, a political online news outlet, said the Plastics Industry Association, a lobbying organization, is asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to issue a statement that single-use plastic bags are safer during the virus outbreak and asking to "help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk."
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, a vocal opponent of the bag bill, urged Inslee to veto it in a press release Tuesday evening that had a copy of a letter to the governor attached. A spokesman for Inslee said the policy adviser who worked on the bill had not seen any requests for a veto and noted that bill doesn't take effect until Jan. 1.
Ericksen said Wednesday he expected Inslee to sign the bill but contends the ban "looks a bit silly" in light of concerns that have arisen because of the coronavirus. He acknowledged the statewide ban doesn't start until shortly before the Legislature returns for the 2021 session.
"We could deal with it next year," he said, adding he might introduce legislation to repeal the statewide ban. But that would depend on the results of the November election and control of the Legislature, where Democrats now have strong majorities in both chambers.
The law does pre-empt local ordinances in 35 communities that have some type of restriction on single-use plastic bags, said Laurie Davies, the Ecology Department's Solid Waste Management program manager. But the department has a series of options if COVID-19 is still a concern and can work with stores on implementation or provide relief from the regulations its working on.
"If we're still in a coronavirus outbreak, of course we can suspend these regulations," Davies said.