Guest Opinions

Plastic bag ban does not need paper bag fee

Full grocery bags sitting on the kitchen counter.
Full grocery bags sitting on the kitchen counter. Getty Images

Lawmakers looking to ban plastic bags in Washington need to address a glaring problem with their bill that will increase grocery costs for Washingtonians and jeopardize good, Union jobs throughout the state.

That glaring problem is a mandatory fee on paper bags. In addition to banning single use plastic bags statewide, Senate Bill 5323 also implements a minimum 8 cent fee for each paper bag needed to carry your groceries. We cannot solve our plastics problem by discouraging consumers from choosing locally manufactured paper.

Pulp and paper workers care deeply about the environment. Many of our members are avid outdoorsmen who want to protect our fisheries and waterways from litter and pollution. However, paper bags are not a part of the problem that this bill is trying to solve.

We don’t need a new, government mandated fee on paper bags that will take money from Washington consumers for the benefit of big grocery store chains. Lawmakers must understand the impact a bag fee will have on Washington’s vibrant forestry, wood products, and pulp and paper industries. All told, those industries support nearly 30,000 good paying jobs and payout almost $2 billion in total compensation to Washington workers.

California passed a similar bill two years ago. A recent report on the impacts of that bill shows that while it is often touted as a ban on plastic bags, California grocers have continued their addiction to plastic, handing out nearly four thick plastic “reusable” bags for every paper bag.

This has resulted in a 61 percent reduction in paper bag use six months after the bill went into effect. A similar decline in Washington would be devastating to our members. We do not believe that the Legislature should gamble with family wage, Union jobs. The bill can and should pass without a paper bag fee attached.

Paper bags are made from a renewable resource, are compostable, fully recyclable and completely reusable. Paper bag manufacturing supports many jobs through the Pacific Northwest, including at several mills right here in Washington.

Each paper bag has an average of 40 percent recycled content and can easily be recycled to create other paper products. In fact, the recycling recovery rate for paper products is over 65 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In comparison, plastic bags, including reusables, are only recovered at a 10 percent rate.

Make no mistake, this fee will act as grocery tax, with funds that go directly to retailers.

As a union committed to social justice and the well-being of our local, state and national community, we oppose this regressive fee that will make things harder for families already struggling to get by.

Grocers last year spent over $20 million to pass Initiative 1634 which banned grocery taxes in Washington. A few short months later, they are advocating for a grocery tax with a key difference: they get to keep the money. Washington voters were clear last fall that they don’t want their groceries taxed. So why should the Legislature now tax their grocery bags?

As the Grocers pointed out in their 1634 campaign, grocery taxes are regressive and working families will bear the brunt of the pain.

While the bill does include an exemption for customers on social assistance programs, a report on California’s version of this bill shows that some stores narrowly interpreted the provision to only offer a single free bag. Also noteworthy in that report is a recommendation to raise the bag fee beyond 10 cents. Californians could soon be paying 25 cents for bags at the checkout line and Washington could follow suit if SB 5323 passes.

Remember, 8 cents is the floor for the fee, not the ceiling.

Legislators should stand for good union jobs, should stand against regressive taxes, and should address the problem of plastic in our waters. They can do all of that by removing the paper bag fee from SB 5323.

Greg Pallesen is President of The Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers which represents 4,500 workers at pulp and paper mills in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and Virginia. Washington AWPPW members will be adversely impacted should SB 5323 pass with a paper bag fee.