City of Tacoma Bag Ban Ordinance
Overview and Information
Tacoma uses over 80 million single-use plastic bags every year. The Sustainable Tacoma Commission has voted unanimously to recommend that the Tacoma City Council adopt an ordinance that will eliminate single-use plastic grocery bags from most retail establishments within the city of Tacoma. It will require stores to charge a 5-cent fee when they supply customers with a paper bag.
– This is modeled closely on similar ordinances already enacted in 12 communities elsewhere in Washington State, collectively known as the “Bellingham Model,” and it has the support of principle stakeholders, including the Northwest Grocer’s Association.
– The intent of this ordinance is to encourage the use of reusable grocery bags, both as a means of reducing Tacoma’s solid waste and as a demonstration of this community’s commitment to building a sustainable future.
Very few plastic bags – from .5% to 3% – are actually recycled. In Washington, more than half of recycling facilities do not even accept plastic bags and 70% of Washington recyclers want disposable plastic bags removed from the waste system. In the words of Jeff Murray, vice president of Far West Fibers, the largest recycler in Oregon, “Plastic bags and other thin-film plastic is the number-one enemy of the equipment we use. More than 300,000 plastic bags are removed from our machines every day — and since most of the removal has to be done by hand, that means more than 25 percent of our labor costs involves plastic-bag removal.”
Paper Bag Usage
Plastic bag bans have not resulted in increases in paper bag usage. Data has shown a dramatic reduction in single-use paper bag consumption – as much as 90%. When free bags are not available, many shoppers opt for no bag at all or bring their own. According to a Princeton study, every area where charges have been implemented has seen the overall use of store-provided bags drop significantly.
Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse. Whales and sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for squid, and as the individual bags begin to break into smaller pieces, more marine species are put in danger. A recently released Ocean Conservancy report found that plastic bags accounted for 12% of all marine debris collected during the 23rd annual International Coastal Cleanup.
The Bellingham model has taken precautions to ensure that low income customers will not be affected by the new charge for paper bags:
“Stores shall provide reusable or paper bags at no charge to customers participating in state or federal low-income food assistance programs, such as customers using vouchers or electronic benefits cards issued under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) support programs, or the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “Food Stamps,” also known as Basic Food), or the Washington State Food Assistance Program (FAP).”
While it is true that plastic bags have less of a carbon footprint than paper bags, plastic bags can take generations – possibly centuries – to degrade, and they do significant damage to wildlife and water quality over the course of their very long lives.
Reusable Bags and Illness
Concerns about whether reusable bags cause illness are based on a misleading San Francisco study – sample size was 84 bags – that took place before the bag ban there took effect. The study was financed by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the interests of plastic bag manufacturers. Interviews for that research revealed that three-quarters of the individuals surveyed didn’t separate meats from vegetables and only 3% cleaned their bags regularly.
Plastic and Fossil Fuels
While most plastic bags in the US are made from natural gas rather than oil, both are fossil fuels. One Barrel of Oil Equivalent (BOE) – 42 gallons – is roughly the same as 5,800 cubic feet of natural gas. A city like Tacoma, WA, that uses 82,000,000 plastic bags a year, requires 56.8 million cubic feet of natural gas to make those bags, the equivalent of 400,000 gallons of oil.
Plastic Bags and the Waste Stream
Every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence. Polyethylene will break into smaller and smaller pieces but it will never fully go away. Although plastic bags do not make up a large percentage of the total waste stream (by weight), the passing of a reusable bag ordinance can serve as an environmental prompt, serving to further public engagement on sustainable issues.
Sustainable Tacoma Commission
 “A Solution Not in the Bag; Why Recycling Cannot Solve the Plastic Bag Problem in Washington.” Robb Krehbiel, Environment Washington Research & Policy Center. January 2012