Answers for Shoppers

Frequently Asked Questions


Why did Seattle ban single-use plastic carryout bags?

Lightweight plastic carryout bags are commonly found in litter and escape into our waterways where they remain as a pollutant forever. Fish and other marine animals commonly mistake pieces of plastic and bags for food. When plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, those microscopic particles may also be consumed by small animals in the oceans and enter the food chain. Because of plastic's persistence in the environment, the City believes the use of throw-away plastic products should be minimized.

Why not just recycle plastic carryout bags?

After years in use, even in cities like Seattle that have tried to recycle throw-away plastic bags, recycling hasn't caught on. Less than 15 percent of single-use plastic carryout bags get recycled in Seattle, which is reputed to have the highest plastic bag recycling rate in the country. In contrast, more than 80 percent of paper shopping bags are recycled here.

What about bags for vegetables and meat in stores and other plastic bags like newspaper and dry-cleaning bags? Are they also banned?

No. Bags used by customers inside stores to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy or small hardware items are still allowed, as are bags to wrap frozen foods, ice cream, meat or fish, flowers and other items where dampness is a problem. Newspaper and dry-cleaning bags are still OK, too, and of course you can still purchase packages of garbage bags, yard waste bags and bags for pet waste.

Can I still recycle other plastic bags?

compostableLogo Yes, you may still get newspaper and dry-cleaning bags and plastic bags used for packaging new electronic products. They can all be recycled. Bundle them in one bag, tie it shut, and put it in your recycling cart. Do not recycle vegetable bags from the grocery store or any others, such as Ziploc bags, used for food. Food residue and moisture makes them unrecyclable.

Another caution: Do not recycle plastic-like film bags marked "biodegradable" or "compostable." They are made of organic material which contaminates plastic recycling and should go in your Food and Yard Waste cart. Compost only bags that have the logos to the right.

What should I do with the paper shopping bags I get?

Reuse them a few times if you can, donate clean ones to your neighborhood food bank or recycle them. Paper bags with food or grease on them go in your Food and Yard Waste cart.

Where can I get reusable shopping bags?

Most grocery and drug stores already sell reusable bags for about a dollar or less. Let the 5 cent charge for paper bags be a reminder to shop with your reusable bags and you'll save money in the long run.

Why not use biodegradable or compostable bags?

Biodegradable and compostable bags are not meant to be carryout (shopping) bags. They're specifically designed as liners for kitchen food waste containers and as liners for Food and Yard Waste carts.

Also, there are some plastic film or composite-material bags on the market that claim to be "biodegradable" but are just "greenwashing." Some merchants mistakenly use or sell these. To make sure you've got the right ones for your kitchen container or Food and Yard Waste cart, look for the logos above.

When recycled, what are paper and plastic bags used for?

Recycled brown (kraft) paper bags sorted from the stream of recyclables at the Republic Services processing facility in SODO are often made into cardboard. Some bags pass through and end up in the bales of mixed paper which is commonly made into the middle layer of corrugated cardboard, newsprint, or paperboard, typically the gray paper liner in cereal and cracker boxes (according to a Seattle Public Utilities 2008 study).

Some of the plastic film recycled here, including plastic bags, is made into plastic lumber or wood-plastic composite lumber (commonly used for decking), pipe, garden edging, or shipping corner boards. Other plastic film is shipped to Asia where it is made into a number of consumer products, component parts or black plastic bags (SPU 2008 study). The largest quantity of recyclable plastic film is recovered from commercial and industrial sources, not consumer carryout bags, which are not needed to maintain viable plastic film recycling markets.

How can I tell the city about stores using plastic bags?

A call to Seattle Public Utilities (SPU)'s customer service line, (206) 684-3000, will forward store names to outreach staff who will visit the location. Note that small store, those without branches outside Seattle where they can send their existing stock of bags, were allowed some time to use up inventory. Also, strong plastic bags (2.25 mils thick or greater) are considered reusable and some stores such as department stores and book stores will be using them. You may also call this number if you see a store not charging for large, recyclable paper bags. (No charge is required for small paper bags.)

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).