Plastic bag ordinance

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Questions about the ordinance

Below is a comprehensive list of questions about the plastic bag ordinance. Need more information? Read your jurisdiction's entire ordinance.

This ordinance went into effect July 1, 2014.

Questions about:

Which businesses the ordinance applies to

What types of bags are prohibited, and what types are exempt

Bag fees

Recycled content of bags

Compliance with the ordinance

The intent of the ordinance

Questions about which businesses the ordinance applies to

Which businesses are affected by the ordinance?
Most retailers are subject to the new requirements, including grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, liquor stores, restaurants, convenience stores and other retailers or vendors. See which types of bags are subject to the ordinance and which types are exempt.

Are any types of businesses exempt from the ordinance?
Food banks are exempt and may use any type of bag.

Which areas of Thurston County are affected?
The ordinance has been adopted by the cities of Tumwater and Olympia as well as the unincorporated areas of Thurston County. Other cities may adopt the ordinance later. Sign up for our email alerts to stay informed.

Can restaurants provide single-use plastic bags for takeout food?
Yes. There is an exemption in the ordinance that allows retailers to help safeguard public health by providing customers with single-use plastic carryout bags for prepared to-go foods and liquids that can leak or be spilled.

Restaurants can't use single-use plastic carryout bags for items like cookbooks, t-shirts, bottled salad dressing, etc.

Can grocers’ deli counters use plastic bags for prepared takeout food?
Yes. Prepared to-go foods, such as roasted chicken and soups, can be placed in protective plastic bags at the deli counter to prevent leaks or spills.

Are farmers’ markets, street fairs, festivals and events prohibited from using single-use plastic bags?
Yes. The ordinance 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.

Can food vending trucks use single-use plastic bags for prepared food?
Yes. Like restaurants, food trucks may use single-use plastic bags only for prepared carryout food.

Are clothing stores prohibited from using single-use plastic bags?
Yes. Clothing stores must follow the same requirements as other retailers. Clothing stores cannot provide plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick. Thicker plastic bags and garment bags are allowed. Retailers can choose to provide them free or charge for them.

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Questions about what types of bags are prohibited, and what types are exempt

Which types of bags are prohibited?
Retailers cannot provide plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick at checkout or point of sale. These are the thin “single use” plastic bags typically seen at grocery stores. These thin bags are prohibited regardless of whether the retailer provides them free or charges for them.

What kind of plastic bags are allowed at checkout?
Yes. Retailers can provide heavyweight “reusable” plastic bags (2.25 mils or thicker) at checkout. Thicker bags are considered reusable because they are made from durable materials specifically designed and manufactured for multiple re-use. Retailers can provide these bags free or charge any fee they choose. Some retailers already use these bags for heavy or bulky items.

Can retailers provide thin plastic bags for meat, produce, bulk foods, or bakery items?
Yes. Retailers may provide any type of bag inside the store next to bulk foods, meats, produce, bakery goods, flowers, and other similar items.

Are any types of bags exempt?
Yes. Types of bags are exempt from the ordinance include:

  • Dry cleaning bags.
  • Newspaper bags.
  • Door-hanger bags.
  • Bags sold in packages (like garbage bags, pet waste bags, etc).

Can retailers provide paper bags?
Yes. Paper bags 1/8 barrel (882 cubic inches) or larger must be made of at least 40% recycled paper, and customers must be charged at least 5 cents per bag. Retailers can charge more than 5 cents, and can keep revenue made from bag fees. Qualified low-income customers are exempt from the paper bag fee.

Can retailers provide small paper bags at check out for easily damaged items, such as birthday cards, small paintbrushes, or glass items?
Yes. Retailers may provide small paper bags for small items such as greeting cards, gifts, books, nails, and more. Retailers can provide them free or charge for them.

Are retailers required to provide bag options for customers?
No. Retailers may choose to provide paper bags, reusable plastic bags, both types of bag, or no bags at all. 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.

Can retailers provide checkout bags less than 2.25 mils thick if they’re made of recycled or compostable content?
No. Plastic bags provided at checkout must be at least 2.25 mils thick, regardless of the content they’re made of.

Can retailers reuse single-use plastic bags collected from customers?
No. Customers may bring in and use any bag they wish, but retailers may not collect single-use plastic bags and give them out to other customers.

What if I’m not sure if my plastic bags are 2.25 mils or thicker?
Ask your bag supplier to include the thickness of the bags you purchase on your invoice. 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.

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Questions about bag fees

Which type of bags require a fee?
Retailers must charge at least 5 cents for paper carryout bags of 1/8 barrel (882 cubic inches) or larger. As a rule of thumb, if a bag has a flat bottom greater than 6 inches by 10 inches, you will need to charge for it. All other bags do not require a fee.

Can retailers choose to charge a fee for other bags, such as small paper bags, reusable bags, or produce bags?
Yes. Retailers may choose to charge any type of fee for any additional bag type. This decision is up to each individual business. The only required charge is a 5-cent minimum for 1/8 barrel paper bags.

Are any customers exempt from paying the 5-cent fee for a single use paper bag?
Yes. To ease the impact on low-income customers, retailers must waive the paper bag fee for customers paying with a voucher or electronic benefits card issued under:

  • The Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) support programs
  • Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly “Food Stamps”; also known as Basic Food)
  • Washington State Food Assistance Program (FAP)

Can retailers “absorb the cost” of large paper bags and not charge customers?
No. Retailers must charge the customer at least 5 cents per 1/8 barrel-size or larger paper bag. This charge acts as an incentive for customers to remember to bring reusable bags. For that reason, the customer’s receipt must show the total charge and number of paper bags used. The mandatory charge also creates a level playing field for retailers who may not be able to absorb the cost of the paper bags.

How must retailers notify customers of the paper bag fee?
The 5-cent charge on large paper bags must appear on the customer’s receipt.

Do retailers have to keep track of how many paper bags they sell?
No. The ordinance doesn’t require retailers to track bag sales. However, Thurston County would like to evaluate how effective the ban is at reducing bag use. Please take the following short survey.

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; retailers are selling the bags.

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Questions about recycled content of bags

Which bags are required to have recycled content?
Paper checkout bags 1/8 barrel-size or larger must be made from 40% recycled content. No other bags are required to have recycled content.

Does the recycled content of the paper bags have to be post-consumer or can it be industrial?
It can be either or a mix of both.

Does the recycled content rule apply to all paper bags?
No. It applies only to the large bags for which the 5-cent minimum charge is required. There is no post-consumer recycled content requirement for smaller bags, but retailers are encouraged to use recycled-content paper bags whenever possible.

Do heavyweight plastic bags (2.25 mils or thicker) have to have recycled content?
No. There is no requirement for recycled content in heavyweight plastic bags, though the use of recycled-content products is encouraged whenever possible.

How do I know if the paper bags I use are recyclable?
Paper bags are recyclable in Thurston County as long as they are not coated with wax or plastic film. Coated paper bags typically look shiny.

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Questions about compliance with the ordinance

Can retailers use up existing stocks of plastic bags after July 1, 2014?
Retailers can use up single-use plastic bags that were on site before July 1, 2014. Stores that are part of a retail chain can either use up the stock that was delivered to their store before July 1, 2014, or send their leftover bags to their other locations where plastic bag bans are not in place. This does not mean that retailers in areas affected by the ban can continue to receive single use plastic bags from their headquarters or distribution centers after July 1, 2014. Retailers can also give plastic bags to an organization exempt from the ordinance, like a food bank.

What are the penalties for not complying with these new requirements?
The ordinance describes the stages of enforcement. 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. Read the ordinance for your jurisdiction to learn more.

How will retailers and their customers be notified of ordinance?
We mailed a letter and insert (PDF) to 3,800 businesses on March 7, 2014. Information is posted on the Thurston County Solid Waste website, with links to the participating cities' websites. Information about the ordinance has been distributed via local news media, newsletters, and other means to reach retailers, their employees, and customers.

During the transition, will the county offer any promotional assistance?
Yes. Our website offers printable signs and cards that retailers can download free. These resources quickly let customers understand the ordinance, and identify it as a local government regulation and not a policy of the individual retailer. We also encourage retailers to post signs in parking lots and stores that remind customers to bring their own bags. The Washington Food Industry Association website also has downloadable designs you can use for signs, buttons, and more.

Whom should I contact if a store still provides plastic bags at checkout after July 1, 2014?
Please contact:

Thurston County Public Health and Social Services’ Environmental Health Division at (360) 867-2664.

Enforcement of the bag ordinance is done through Thurston County Public Health and Social Services’ Environmental Health Division. Upon a first violation of the ordinance, a designated enforcement officer of Thurston County Environmental Health shall issue a Notice of Violation to the offending person or business. The Notice of Violation shall contain the date of and alleged type of violation. The Notice of Violation shall be regarded as a warning and no other sanctions shall be implemented. Notice shall be served upon the premises to the highest-ranking employee currently on duty at the time of delivery. If after the issuance of a Notice of Violation the enforcement officer becomes aware of subsequent non-compliance, Thurston County Environmental Health has the authority to issue a civil infraction. Any subsequent violation shall be designated as a Class I civil infraction. Each day of any such violation is a separate civil infraction; a notice of infraction may be issued for each day of any such violation, however the enforcement officer is not required to issue a notice of infraction for each day of such violation. Civil infractions shall be heard and determined according to Chapter 7.80 RCW as amended, and any applicable court rules.

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Questions about the intent of the ordinance

What is the purpose or intended result of this legislation?
The goal of this ordinance is to reduce the use of disposable carryout bags, especially lightweight plastic bags. These bags litter our landscape and escape into our waterways and oceans where they are harmful to animals. Plastic bags 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 retailers are asked to encourage customers to remember to bring their reusable bags. 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. Learn more about the effects of plastics in the environment.

Why does the ordinance ban lightweight plastic carryout bags but allow heavyweight, thicker ones?
Customers are more likely to reuse the thicker, stronger plastic bags (more than 2.25 mils thick) than the lightweight plastic bags. They are also a more reasonable option than paper bags for heavy or bulky items.

Why aren’t compostable plastic bags an acceptable substitute for regular plastic?
Shoppers who receive “biodegradable” or compostable bags as carryout bags may mistakenly try to recycle them with regular plastic bags at stores that provide recycling containers. Even a few compostable film bags can make a whole bale of regular plastic film bags unrecyclable, according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers. Compostable bags also are unlikely to be an attractive option to retailers, since they are currently much more expensive than regular plastic or paper bags.

What makes the reusable bags shoppers bring from home better than single-use disposable bags?
The reusable bags shoppers bring from home are typically the non-woven polypropylene bags. Once these bags have been reused a couple dozen times their impact is less than that of the dozens of lightweight plastic bags they have replaced. They can hold two or three times more than single-use plastic bags. They are also much more durable—lightweight bags often need to be doubled to carry heavy items. Learn more about choosing the best reusable bags.

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Contact us at or call 360-867-2491.

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