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FAQs – Bag Ban for Retailers

What stores does this apply to?

All retail stores of any kind are prohibited from using lightweight plastic carryout bags, and they must charge customers 5 cents each for any large, grocery sized, carryout bags used.

Are there any exceptions?

Only one. Food banks may use any type of bag.

What should retailers do if they have large stocks of plastic bags that last beyond the July 1, 2012 effective date of the ban?

Retailers are allowed to use up stock on hand. Chain stores with outlets outside of Seattle can ship their bag inventory to those outlets. Smaller stores with stocks likely to last into next year will probably find their customers wondering why they are still using plastic bags. Faced with customer concern, they may choose to donate their remaining stock to a food bank.

What about food vending trucks, farmers’ markets, street fairs, festivals and events?

Ordinance 123775 specifically includes all these activities among the kinds of “retail establishments” where the use of lightweight plastic carryout bags is banned. Vendors at farmers’ markets may use small bags of any type for vegetables and meat and put these in a paper carryout bag or a customer’s reusable bag.

Do I have to charge my customers for all paper bags?

No. Stores (and vendors of all kinds including those at farmers’ markets) are required to charge only for larger bags such as typical grocery store carryout bags – technically a bag larger than 882 cubic inches, known as one-eighth barrel in the grocery trade. As a rule of thumb, if a bag has a flat bottom greater than 6 inches by 10 inches, you’ll need to charge for it.

Can retailers just “eat the cost” of large paper bags and not charge their customers?

No. The minimum 5 cent charge must be collected. It is meant to be a reminder to customers to shop with reusable bags, and for that reason the number of bags and total cost of recyclable paper bags sold must be shown on the customer’s sales slip. The City ordinance requires the charge for all large bags at all stores to ensure a level playing field level among retailers. The law says: “It shall be a violation of this section for any retail establishment to pay [for] or otherwise reimburse a customer for any portion of the pass-through charge.”

What about smaller paper bags?

Stores are not required to charge for smaller paper bags but they may at their discretion.

What about low-income customers for whom a bunch of 5-cent bags can mean real money?

Many low-income customers are exempt from the charge. Specifically, no retail store at any time may charge the 5-cent pass-through fee for large recyclable paper bags to customers having 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).

Do paper bags have to be 100% recyclable?

No problem. Paper is 100% recyclable.

Some cities with bag bans are very prescriptive about the recycled content in paper bags. What about Seattle?

The only requirement is that larger paper bags – the ones for which a 5 cent charges is required – state that they contain a minimum 40% recycled content.

For those labels, are there any requirements for ink color or type size?

No.

Does the 40% recycled content have to be post-consumer or can it be industrial?

The large bags must contain 40% post-consumer recycled fiber content.

Does the 40% recycled content rule apply to all paper bags?

No. It applies only to the large bags for which the 5 cent charge is required. There is no post-consumer recycled content requirement for smaller bags, but the City encourages retailers to use recycled-content paper bags.

Do stores have to keep track of how many paper bags they sell?

That’s not required by the City ordinance and the City will not audit stores. However, the 5 cent charge on large paper bags must be shown on the customer’s sales slip.

Is this transaction taxable?

Yes. The Washington State Department of Revenue has confirmed that the 5 cent pass-through charge is subject to sales tax; retail stores are selling the bags.

Why did the City ban lightweight plastic carryout bags but allow heavy-weight, thicker ones?

The thicker, stronger plastic bags – those more than 2.25 mils thick – have special uses for which paper is not a good option or not readily available; for example, very large bags for bedding and other bulky household items.

Are stores required to charge 5 cents for the heavy-weight plastic bags?

No, retailers do not have to charge for the 2.25 mil and thicker bags permitted by the law.

What about hanging-garment bags?

Dry cleaner bags are exempt and garment bags provided by retailers would fall under this exemption.

Is there a requirement for the heavy duty plastic bags to have recycled content?

No, plastic bags that are allowed are not required to have recycled content, though the City encourages the use of recycled content products whenever possible.

Why are to-go food vendors allowed to use plastic bags?

There is a problem with spillage, especially of soups, that this avoids. However, the City encourages restaurants to use paper bags whenever possible.

If restaurants are selling items other than prepared foods are the bags they use still exempt?

No. If the items being purchased are not prepared food which can leak or be spilled (i.e., cook books, t-shirts, bottled salad dressing, etc.), lightweight single-use plastic carryout bags may not be used.

Are grocers’ deli counters exempt like restaurants with to-go food?

Yes, prepared on-site foods such as roasted chicken and soups can be placed in protective plastic bags at the deli counter as needed to prevent leaks or spills.

What about bakery goods?

Bags of any kind may be used for individual bakery goods, loaves of bread and other pastries. They are exempt as “in-store” packaging like vegetable and bulk food bags and bags for meat, ice cream and flowers where moisture would be a problem.

Are restaurants, which can still use lightweight plastic bags for to-go food orders, prohibited from using compostable bags for this purpose?

Technically, no. However, the City’s ordinance bans the use of “biodegradable” or compostable bags as carryout bags, and Seattle Public Utilities urges restaurants to follow suit. Compostable bags have been developed to line kitchen food waste containers and, in larger sizes, to line curbside food and yard waste bins. Shoppers who receive “biodegradable” or compostable bags as shopping bags are likely by mistake to recycle them with regular plastic bags (newspaper, dry cleaning, packaging, etc.) which can prevent successful remanufacture of the plastic. As little as ½ of 1 percent of compostable film bags can make a whole bale of petro-plastic film bags unrecyclable, according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers.

Are dry cleaning bags exempt?

Yes, they are exempt.

Which zip codes does this ordinance apply to?

The ordinance applies only within the City Limits of Seattle. Zip code boundaries in north and south Seattle do not match the City Limits so they are not a guide for where the law applies. Retail businesses within the City will have a City of Seattle business license and the plastic bag ban applies to them.

Are there any restrictions on customers bringing back bags?

No. Customers who re-use bags should benefit from their re-use efforts.

If my store collects plastic bags from customers for recycling, can I reuse the good ones as carryout bags?

No. Customers may bring in and reuse any bag of their own, subject to the policy of the store. However, plastic bags collected from customers cannot be given out to other customers as carryout bags. They must be recycled.

How will this be enforced?

SPU has always taken an educational approach regarding regulations. If citizens call and complain, SPU will send outreach staff to talk to the retailers about the law and explain what’s needed to comply. If it becomes clear a retailer is intentionally not complying they may be fined. The fine is $250 plus statutory charges that bring the total to $513.

During the transition is SPU going to offer any promotional assistance?

Retailers can download “Point-of-Sale/Point-of-Purchase” artwork. This will quickly tells customers what is required, indicating that the bag ban is a City regulation and not a policy of the individual retailer.

In addition, SPU plans to work with print and broadcast media to stimulate informative coverage of the plastic bag ban, emphasizing the “bring your own bag” message. The utility also has some reusable bags available for use in promotion.

The City also urges retailers to participate, with signs in their parking lots and stores that remind customers to bring their own bags. In this connection, the Washington Food Industry Association has graphic designs available that can be used for parking lot and other signs. These are available on the Washington Food Industry Association website for download.

What is the plan for informing retailers?

An 8,000 piece mass mailing has been sent out to reach all retail outlets listed in the city’s database.

What is the purpose or end result of this legislation?

The fundamental goal is to reduce the use of throw-away plastic products, particularly lightweight plastic bags which are a litter problem and escape into our waterways and oceans where they are harmful to animals and may enter the food chain as they degrade into smaller and smaller – but still plastic – pieces. Paper, of course, is organic and does not present similar problems. But reducing waste means cutting down on the use of paper bags, too. That’s why the City urges all retailers to encourage their customers to shop with reusable bags.

Aren’t the non-woven polypropylene bags sold as reusable bags by many retailers as much of a problem as the lightweight throwaway bags they’re replacing?

No. Once these bags have been reused a couple dozen times their impact is less than that of the many more lightweight plastic bags they’ve replaced. They carry from two to three times as much as typical throwaway plastic bags which often need to be doubled for strength. That’s not a problem for the reusable bags. They are also recyclable. SPU accepts these types of bags and other polypropylene products in curbside recycling bins and hopes people will recycle them. The value of recycled polypropylene is increasing.

Will any leniency be given on bags that are almost 2.25 mils thick?

No. Should a question arise, retailers should be prepared to show that the bags they are using are 2.25 mils thick or greater. It might be a good idea for retailers to ask bag suppliers to include the thickness of the bag on invoices.

Are there any limitations on lamination?

No, this is not regulated. Paper bags may be made with plastic film laminates. Plastic-coated papers are recyclable in Seattle.

Are there any restrictions on stores, restaurants, or bakeries choosing to charge a fee on all bags?

No, there are no requirements. This decision is up to the business.