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By Beka Compton
The Times 

A little less plastic: Bag ban a part of the "new normal"

Senate Bill 5323 was postponed days after being passed in 2020, but will eliminate single-use plastic bags as the pandemic ends



Floating plastic bags have found their way to remote and natural settings in our community. Local hunters and hikers have witnessed the ghostly invaders.

The lion of early spring has roared, and shops are embracing the relaxed pandemic-related restrictions as they shake off the winter blues. As shoppers, we have gotten used to wearing face masks and the smell of hand sanitizer, and before we know it, we will be used to packing reusable shopping bags with us.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington shoppers use two billion single-use plastic bags each year. Most bags go in the trash once people get home and put their groceries or other treasures away and up to 300 million plastic bags make it into the ocean each year. A study performed by the University of Georgia in 2015 found that up to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic make it into the ocean, and that's just waste produced by people living no more than 30 miles from a coastline.

Most of all plastics are not recycled due to the wide variety of plastics used, size of items and availability of recycling plants. As much as 91% of all plastics are not recycled, according to data from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Small plastic items, like cutlery, bags, and straws, get caught up in recycling machinery, and are often rejected altogether by recycling plants.

The large amount of plastic that ends up in landfills breaks up, as opposed to breaking down over time. As the materials heat up, they begin to crumble into smaller and smaller pieces, until they become pieces as small as 5 millimeters. These microplastics end up everywhere. Researchers have located microplastics from the secluded Pyrenees mountain range to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Microplastics are increasingly found in wildlife digestive tracts, and humans are unknowingly ingesting plastic bits, as microplastics pollute water sources and the food chain.

Last year, Washington joined seven other states to ban single-use plastic bags at restaurants, grocery and retail stores, takeout establishments, festivals, and markets. Senate Bill 5323 passed by a bipartisan vote in March 2020 and was set to go into effect on January 1, 2021, however, enforcement has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill will require grocery, restaurants, and retail businesses to use paper bags with at least 40% recycled materials, and plastic bags must use at least 20% recycled material. Plastic bags must also be a heavier weight, at least 2.25 millimeters in thickness and labeled 'reusable.' Bags will increase to 4 millimeters by 2026. A small fee will be charged for each bag ($.08 per bag), which will help businesses cover the cost of the thicker bags.

Consumers may welcome eliminating the use of lightweight plastic bags that are thin, easily ripped, often requiring double-bagging just to make it to the car. Oregon banned single-use plastic bags in 2019 opting for a heavier weight product. A quick trip to Safeway in Milton-Freewater proved that a single bag can easily handle a dozen cans of vegetables. The new bags are also good for up to 125 uses. The average American shopper makes 1.6 trips to the grocery store each week, for a total of 83.2 trips per year, based on a 2019 study by Statista. A $.05 reusable bag, purchased in Oregon, will last nearly a year and a half if it is used for every single grocery trip.

There are a small handful of exclusions, including the in-store bags used for meats and produce, and the ban does not apply to food banks and pantries, though they are strongly encouraged to use reusable bags. Families using government assistance programs, like TANF, WIC and SNAP, will not have to pay the bag fee at checkout.

The SB 5323 requires paper bags to be made with 40% recyclable material. State Representative Skyler Rude sponsored House Bill 1145 which allows use of straw pulp to satisfy the recycled material content for reusable shopping bags.

"This requirement, however, did not allow for straw pulp to be used to satisfy that requirement because it is not recycled material. House Bill 1145, which I sponsored, addresses that concern by allowing straw pulp to satisfy that requirement," said Rude.

HB1145 was passed unanimously and has a direct impact on Columbia County as it gives Columbia Pulp an entry into that market. The straw-pulp mill is set to reopen in May, with more than 90 employees returning to the mill after the April 2020 shutdown.

It is unclear exactly when the bag ban will be implemented, as it all depends on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the future will be a little less plastic and a whole lot greener.


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