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Shopping Bag Restrictions

The Tacoma City Council passed the Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) ordinance on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. The law regulates the use of carryout bags and will go into effect in one year. The main elements of the law are:

  • Thin plastic carryout bags will no longer be distributed at any Tacoma retail establishments.
  • Retail establishments will collect a minimum pass-through charge of five cents for each recycled paper or reusable carryout bag requested by customers.
  • Those with EBT/WIC/TANF benefits will not have to pay the pass-through charge on paper bags.

Bags other than carryout bags, such as produce bags, dry cleaning bags and newspaper bags, will continue to be available for free. The law follows the same carryout bag restriction model that 12 other communities in Washington State have implemented.


During the one year implementation period City staff will distribute free reusable bags, conduct focused engagement in low-income communities, and provide educational resources to businesses. Staff will also conduct a study of the impacts of the law after implementation. Annually, retailers will be asked to report to the City on the number of recycled paper carryout bags distributed to help determine effectiveness of the law.


View the BYOB ordinance and the one year implementation plans.


Check this webpage often for updates including BYOB educational resources.


A Brief Bag History

The original “t-shirt” plastic bag was designed in Sweden in 1965 and in the late 1970’s it began appearing in American grocery stores. They were markedly less expensive than paper bags for the grocers to purchase. In 1982, Safeway and Kroeger switched from paper to single-use plastic shopping bags, and by the early 2000s, they had secured more than 80% of the grocery and convenience store market in the US. Regulations on the use of plastic bags began as early as the 1990s. 


Why restrict single-use shopping bags?


An estimated two billion single-use plastic shopping bags are used in Washington State each year and most end up in the landfill or as litter, according to a study by the Environment Washington Research & Policy Center. 


By their nature, plastic bags do not biodegrade, but rather break down into smaller and smaller pieces to become micro-plastics (Environment Washington Research & Policy Center) and can cause harm to marine wildlife. When recycled improperly, plastic bags jam equipment; increasing downtime, maintenance and labor costs.


The Washington State Department of Ecology estimates that it costs $700-$1,000 per ton for recycling centers to remove plastic films from other recyclables. Watch the video below to see an example of this in action. To properly recycle plastic bags in Tacoma, bundle the bags into a single plastic bag and tie it closed at the top and put it in the recycle bin.  

While paper bags are recycled at a significantly higher rate than single-use plastic bags, a paper bag produces significantly more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over its lifetime. Manufacturing paper bags results in greater atmospheric acidification, water consumption, and ozone production than plastic bags (Green Cities California). Recycling the bags at the end of their life also takes resources. In shopping bags, the best bag to use is the bag you reuse – dozens, if not hundreds of times!


Other communities’ approaches to single-use shopping bags

Several nations, from Ireland to South Africa, and more than 100 local communities, including Laredo, TX, Sacramento, CA, Washington, D.C., and 14 communities in Washington State, have taken steps to reduce their use of single-use shopping bags. The European Union voted in April 2016 to reduce the use of plastic bags. These cities, counties and countries are making the switch to more sustainable carryout bag options by using price signals and bans that encourage shoppers to choose reusable bags more often. The results generally show that plastic bag waste and litter decrease, and reusable shopping bag use increases.  


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) law?

The BYOB law is a ban on thin plastic bags (less than 2.25 mils) and a fee on recycled paper and reusable bags that is meant to reduce waste and littering. The law encourages shoppers to bring their own bag rather than buying a new bag each time they shop.

What bags will still be available?

Retailers may distribute paper carryout bags made of at least 40% recycled paper and reusable carryout bags for a pass-through fee of not less than five cents. Other bags will still be available such as produce bags used to package meat and bulk items inside the store before purchasing, dry-cleaning bags, and tire bags. 

When does BYOB take effect?

July 12, 2017.

Why was BYOB passed?

The BYOB law was passed to address the problems associated with single-use carryout bags. Each year an estimated 80 – 100 million single-use plastic carryout bags are used in Tacoma. These bags contribute to the waste stream, create unsightly litter, and threaten marine life. Single-use paper bags also have significant life cycle impacts by consuming energy and releasing greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing to “bring your own bag” helps improve the health of our community and our environment. 

Where does the pass-through fee go?

The pass-through fee is kept by the retailer to offset the cost of providing recycled content paper or reusable bags which are more expensive than single-use plastic bags. 

How will low-income residents be impacted?

All residents are encouraged to bring their own reusable bag when shopping, but people with benefits cards (SNAP, FAP, TANF, WIC) will not have to pay the pass-through fee when they receive a recycled content paper carryout bag.

How will BYOB be enforced?

Enforcement will be mainly complaint based. After the law goes into effect, residents may call the City if they notice retailers that are noncompliant with the law. 

Will the City be giving away free reusable bags?

Yes, during the one year implementation period the City will give away free reusable carryout bags. These will likely be given out through food banks, WIC, TANF, SNAP, FAP, community events, Tacoma FIRST 311 and the Tacoma Housing Authority. The City may also implement “share-a-bag” exchange sites at community centers.

What stores are affected?

All retail stores in the city of Tacoma are affected by the law. This includes grocery stores, convenience stores, department stores, hardware stores, liquor stores, pharmacies, and others. 

Are farmer’s markets affected?

Yes, the BYOB ordinance applies to vendors at farmer’s markets, but they will still be able to distribute produce bags for no fee.

Can single-use plastic bags be used for takeout food?

Restaurants, grocery stores and others that sell takeout food can provide single-use plastic bags for prepared take-out foods and liquids intended for consumption away from the premises. This is to safeguard public health and safety during transportation of take-out foods. 

Should I wash my reusable bags?

Yes, to keep reusable bags clean the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommends that you wrap raw meat in plastic and throw away the plastic bag, keep reusable bags dry when not in use, wash cloth bags once a week in hot water with detergent and dry in the dryer, and clean plastic lined reusable bags with hot water and soap and allow to air dry before storing.

I reuse my plastic carryout bags for other things (trash bin liners, lunch, pet waste, etc.). What will I do when these are banned?

In other cities with similar laws, residents generally find substitutes. Try packing lunch in a reusable bag, go without a bin liner for your small trash bins, and look for pet waste specific bags in grocery stores or in city parks. You may also use empty plastic bags from the newspaper, bread, cereal and other packaged items.

How can I learn more?

Check this webpage often for educational resources and information about upcoming opportunities related to the BYOB law. You can also email sustainability@cityoftacoma.org and request to be added to the BYOB Listserv to be updated by email.

What kind of reusable bag is best?

Many Life Cycle Analysis studies have found that lightweight reusable bags made from recycled plastics (polypropylene) are the most environmentally friendly choice. Bags made from cotton canvas are resource intensive but may be extremely long-lived. There are also some lightweight bags some of which may be of recycled content, which will not be long-lived. As with any utilitarian item, material, cost and quality will make a huge difference, depending on how it is used. That said, the best kind of reusable bag for you is the one you actually reuse!

What are other ways to reduce single-use carryout bags?

Communities are using a variety of methods to reduce single-use carryout bags.  Unfortunately, education alone is the least effective methods of getting people to switch to reusable bags. Common methods today range from banning plastic bags, to banning plastic bags with a fee on paper bags (5–25 cents), to putting a fee on both plastic and paper bags (5–10 cents). Eleven other Washington communities have chosen the same model as Tacoma, commonly called the “Bellingham Model”, while two other Washington communities have chosen to just ban plastic bags. 

Contact Us

Kristin Lynett
(253) 591-5571

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