Port Angeles council bans thin plastic carryout bags

PORT ANGELES — After three public hearings and months of debate, the Port Angeles City Council has banned thin plastic carry-out bags at stores within the city.

The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to approve a plastic bag policy that prohibits single-use plastic bags that are less than 2.25 thousandths of an inch and imposes a 5-cent minimum charge on any bag a retailer supplies to a customer at the point of sale.

The goal of the ordinance, which takes effect July 3, is to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags to the grocery store or pharmacy.

“This is incentivizing a clean environment here in Port Angeles,” said Councilman Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, who drafted the ordinance.

Voting in support of the bag law were Mayor Sissi Bruch, Deputy Mayor Kate Dexter and councilmen Mike French and Schromen-Wawrin.

Council members Cherie Kidd, Michael Merideth and Jim Moran voted no. Merideth said he supported a plastic bag ban but opposed the 5-cent charge.

The approved ordinance is a hybrid of two options that the council had considered in previous meetings.

One of those options would require stores to charge at least a nickel for a recycled paper bag. The other had no mandatory charge.

Schromen-Wawrin’s “ban/fee hybrid” includes a 5-cent minimum charge for any bag, eliminating a loophole that would allow retailers to provide slightly thicker free plastic bags at checkout.

“It’s banning the thin film, non-compostable plastic bags, the ones that clog up the recycling plants, the ones that are kind of the main problem in the marine environment, but it’s charging a fee for everything else,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

“So a retailer who says ‘I’m just going to continue to stock thick plastic bags,’ they can continue to do that. There’s no requirement that they move to a paper bag. There’s no requirement that they carry durable bags.

“It’s just a requirement that they charge a minimum 5-cent fee and that they don’t stock the thin film, non-compostable plastic bags.”

More than a dozen cities in Western Washington and Thurston County have enacted plastic bag laws. Port Townsend banned single-use plastic bags in 2012.

Members of the Port Angeles Plastic Reduction Coalition and a Zero Waste Washington official urged the Port Angeles City Council to follow suit Feb. 6.

Schromen-Wawrin’s ban/fee hybrid was modeled on Tacoma’s bag policy, which took effect last July.

A decisive majority of those who testified in public hearings March 6, March 20 and Tuesday favored a ban on single-use plastic bags.

“The plastic is ruining our oceans and poisoning fish,” said Jaidence Blore, 10, in Tuesday’s hearing.

“I love seafood, and I want to eat it without being worried that I may be poisoned and get sick. This initiative is just a small thing to ask for, and it could make a very big impact.”

Blore and another child called on last year’s Port Angeles City Council to take action on plastic bags during a public comment period in November.

Proponents have cited the effects of pollution on marine life and litter as reasons to support a ban on single-use plastic bags.

Others have said it is not the city’s role to tell businesses how to operate.

“I’m sorry that we’re not asking for cooperation and collaboration with the community rather than going to ban, fees, penalties and fines,” Kidd said.

“That’s not my preferred way to make positive change.”

The new ordinance will affect only stores inside the city.

It will not affect merchants in unincorporated Clallam County such as the Port Angeles-East Safeway at 2709 E. U.S. Highway 101 or the Port Angeles Walmart at 3411 E. Kolonels Way.

Country Aire Natural Foods at 200 W. First St. in downtown Port Angeles already has eschewed plastic bags and now charges customers 15 cents for a recycled paper bag.

“What they’ve done is they’ve come up with a policy that works for them without being threatened, without being penalized, without any bans,” said Kidd, who likened the 5-cent bag charge to a “grocery tax.”

“I want a clean town, but I don’t want to threaten you with penalties.

“I don’t want to threaten businesses with penalties,” Kidd added.

Stores that violate the new law will be subject to a $250 fine. Proponents of the ordinance have suggested minimal enforcement.

Moran displayed examples of plastics that will not be impacted by the ordinance, including white kitchen trash bags, clear food storage bags, produce bags, newspaper bags, plastic cups and bottles, fast food drink lids and straws and pop can rings that ensnare wildlife.

“We have an an ordinance that we’re considering that comes nowhere close to addressing the real problem that we’re facing,” Moran said.

Moran said he was privy to several studies that showed how plastic bag bans have resulted in 10 percent to 25 percent reductions in sales tax revenue.

“The bottom line is we can’t afford to do this right now, folks,” Moran said.

“We just don’t have the money to do this.”

Schromen-Wawrin cited a Washington, D.C., survey that found 83 percent of residents and 90 percent of business owners supported or were indifferent to a plastic bag law that took effect in 2009.

Under the Port Angeles ordinance, customers on food assistance programs are exempt from the 5 cent fee.

Businesses can apply for an exemption to the ordinance.

“This time next year, I’d like to see an analysis of the reasons why businesses applied for exemption so that we can see what works and what doesn’t work with this,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

French suggested that the bag law take effect in 90 days rather than 30 days as originally drafted.

“The big retailers are going to have managers that have gone through this in other jurisdictions, and it’s not going to be difficult for them to comply,” French said.

“We also have some small retailers in town. I want to be considerate to them.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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