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 Plastic Bag Ban FAQs for Retailers

Reusable grocery bag

FAQs

  1. When are retailers required to stop providing plastic single-use carryout bags to customers?
  2. What plastic bags are prohibited?
  3. Can retailers provide paper bags?
  4. What stores are affected?
  5. Are small retail businesses exempt?
  6. Can retailers provide “reusable” plastic bags?
  7. Can retailers provide plastic bags for meat, produce, bulk foods and other items?
  8. Are retailers required to provide reusable plastic or single use paper bags?
  9. Are low-income customers exempt from paying the 5-cent fee for a single use paper bag?
  10. Are non-profit agencies and stores exempt?
  11. Can restaurants provide single-use plastic bags?
  12. Do the requirements prohibit retailers from selling plastic bags such as garbage bags and pet waste bags?
  13. Is there an exemption for clothing stores?
  14. Can retailers provide plastic bags made of compostable materials?
  15. Can retailers provide small paper bags at check out for easily damaged items, such as birthday cards or small paint brushes or glass items?
  16. Will there be a “grace period” for retailers to comply?
  17. What are the penalties for not complying with these new requirements?
  18. Why did the City ban lightweight plastic carryout bags but allow heavy-weight, thicker ones?
  19. Do I have to charge my customers for all paper bags?
  20. Can retailers just "eat the cost" of large paper bags and not charge their customers?
  21. What about smaller paper bags?
  22. What about the low-income customers for whom a bunch of 5-cent bags can mean real money?
  23. Bellingham's ordinance is very prescriptive about the recycled content in paper bags.  How will this be enforced?
  24. Do stores have to keep track of how many paper bags they sell?
  25. Is the paper bag transaction taxable?
  26. Are stores required to charge 5 cents for the heavy-weight plastic bags?
  27. Is there a requirement for the heavy duty plastic bags to have recycled content?
  28. Are retailers allowed to use up existing stocks of plastic bags after Aug. 1?
  29. If restaurants are selling items other than prepared foods are the bags they use still exempt?
  30. Are grocers’ deli counters exempt like restaurants with to-go food?
  31. What about bakery goods?
  32. Are dry cleaning bags exempt?
  33. What is the plan for informing retailers?
  34. What is the purpose or end result of this legislation?
  35. 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?
  36. What about bags that are almost 2.25 mils thick?
  37. Are there any restrictions on stores, restaurants, or bakeries choosing to charge a fee on all bags?

1.  When are retailers required to stop providing plastic single-use carryout bags to customers?

August 1, 2012

2. What plastic bags are prohibited?

Those considered “single-use” and “carry out” are prohibited. This includes all plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick provided at check out or point of sale. Those not allowed are the typical plastic bags with handles constructed of thin plastic (less than 2.25 mils thick). Bags constructed of durable plastic (thicker than 2.25 mils) are considered reusable and are allowed.

3. Can retailers provide paper bags?

Retailers may provide customers, upon their request, large paper bags made of at least 40% recycled paper, and must charge a minimum of five cents per bag. The proceeds of the paper bag charges are kept by the store, not collected by the City. Qualified low income customers can be provided paper bags upon request at no charge.

4. What stores are affected?

Most retail establishments are subject to the new requirements, including grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, liquor stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other retail stores or vendors.

5. Are small retail businesses exempt?

No. Most Bellingham retail businesses, with very few exceptions, must meet the requirements of the ordinance.

6. Can retailers provide “reusable” plastic bags?

Yes. Reusable bags are made out of durable materials specifically designed and manufactured for multiple re-use. Reusable plastic bags are at least 2.25 mils thick. They may be provided free or charged for at the store’s discretion.

7. Can retailers provide plastic bags for meat, produce, bulk foods and other items?

Yes, plastic bags that are used inside stores for bulk foods and other items, for meats and produce, unwrapped bakery goods, flowers and other similar items will still be allowed. Only “single-use“ bags used for “carry-out” are prohibited.

8. Are retailers required to provide reusable plastic or single use paper bags?

No. Retailers may choose to provide either or both. If they provide paper bags, they must charge at least 5 cents for them. If they provide plastic bags, they must be at least 2.25 mils thick to be considered “reusable.”

9. Are low-income customers exempt from paying the 5-cent fee for a single use paper bag?

Yes, if they demonstrate eligibility by presenting checks, vouchers or electronic benefits cards issued by state or federal food assistance programs.

10. Are non-profit agencies and stores exempt?

Some are, if they meet the definition of “non-profit charitable reuser” noted in the ordinance. A “non-profit charitable reuser” is charitable organization with 501(c)3 status that reuses and recycles donated goods and receives more than 50% of its revenues from those sales. To qualify for the exemption, they must meet the definition as well as sell and promote the use of reusable bags and offer a discount when customers bring their own bags.

11. Can restaurants provide single-use plastic bags?

Yes, for takeout food. There is an exemption in the ordinance that allows food providers to help safeguard public health by providing customers with single-use plastic carry-out bags for prepared take-out foods and liquids.

12. Do the requirements prohibit retailers from selling plastic bags such as garbage bags and pet waste bags?

No. The requirements only apply to bags provided to customers at check out to carry away purchased items. Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags are not prohibited.

13. Is there an exemption for clothing stores?

Clothing stores must follow the same requirements as other retailers. Clothing stores cannot provide plastic bags at check out that are less than 2.25 mils thick. Plastic bags constructed of thicker plastic can be provided. They may be provided free or charged for at the store’s discretion.

14. Can retailers provide plastic bags made of compostable materials?

No, not if they are less than 2.25 mils thick. The science on compostable plastic bags is not consistent. Allowing their use at this time does not ensure that our goals to reduce the many impacts of plastic bags would be met. Compostable bags also are unlikely to be an attractive option to retailers, as at this time they are more expensive than regular plastic or paper bags.

15. Can retailers provide small paper bags at check out for easily damaged items, such as birthday cards or small paint brushes or glass items?

Yes. Retailers may provide small paper bags for small items such as gifts, books, nails, for the examples noted above, and more. They may be provided free or charged for at the store’s discretion.

16. Will there be a “grace period” for retailers to comply?

The ordinance was approved Aug. 1, 2011, allowing one full year for affected retailers to plan for the transition.

17. What are the penalties for not complying with these new requirements?

The ordinance describes enforcement options, including fines, for violations of the ordinance. First-year efforts to introduce the new requirements, however, will focus on business and customer education and incentives to promote the use of reusable bags.

18. 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 – are reusable and tend to actually be reused more often than the lightweight plastic bags. They also 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. Banning lightweight single-use plastic bags is considered a great first step in the right direction toward reducing the impacts of plastics on our environment.

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

No. Retailers of all types 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.

20. 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.

21. What about smaller paper bags?

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

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

Stores shall provide reusable or paper bags at no charge to customers participating in state or federal low-income food assistance programs, such as customers using 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).

23. Bellingham's ordinance is very prescriptive about the recycled content in paper bags. How will this be enforced?

We are focusing our initial efforts on introducing these new requirements and helping local retailers comply with it.

24. 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 receipt.

25. Is the paper bag transaction taxable?

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

26. 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 ordinance. Retailers who wish to charge for these bags may at their discretion.

27. 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.

28. Are retailers allowed to use up existing stocks of plastic bags after Aug. 1?

The ordinance was approved Aug. 1, 2011, allowing one full year for affected retailers to plan for the transition.  We are focusing our initial efforts on educating retailers and customers on the new requirements.  Some businesses will opt to send their leftover bags to their other locations where plastic bag bans are not in place.  If you do not have stores elsewhere, use up your leftover stock as quickly as possible. Or get rid of your last bags by giving them to a charitable organization that is exempt from the requirement. Donating them will seem like a good business option very soon, because your customers will start asking why you’re still using plastic bags and nobody else is.

29. 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 that can leak or be spilled (i.e., cook books, t-shirts, bottled salad dressing, etc.), single-use plastic carryout bags may not be used.

30. 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.

31. What about bakery goods?

Bags of any kind may be used for individual bakery goods, loaves of bread and other pastries. Bags used inside stores to package bulk items are not prohibited by the ordinance.

32. Are dry cleaning bags exempt?

Yes, they are exempt along with newspaper bags, door-hanger bags and bags sold in packages containing multiple bags for uses such as garbage, pet waste or yard waste.

33. What is the plan for informing retailers?

A mailing has been sent out to all retail outlets listed in the city’s database. Information is posted on the City website, and outreach to the local news media, via social media and by other means will reach retailers, their employees and customers.

34. 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 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.

35. 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. The lightweight bags often need to be doubled for strength. That’s not a problem for the reusable bags.

36. What about bags that are almost 2.25 mils thick?

First-year efforts to introduce the new requirements will focus on business and customer education to help everyone meet the requirements of the ordinance. Over time, 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 their bag suppliers to include the thickness of their bags on invoices.

37. 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.

 

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