Reusable Bags

Harvest Market in White Salmon is presumed to be the retail establishment most affected by the plastic bag ordinance if it were to be passed into law in the City of White Salmon. The grocery store is currently selling reusable bags, pictured here, that wouldn’t fall under regulation.

Mayor David Poucher is considering a veto on the checkout bag ordinance proposed to the White Salmon City Council after a 4-0 vote in favor of the bill to ban single-use checkout bags was submitted during Wednesday night’s council meeting. The City of Bingen, meanwhile, passed the ordinance with a 4-0 vote with otherwise minimal changes during their council meeting Tuesday evening.

Under the Revised Code of Washington, mayors have ten days after the vote to “return [the ordinance] with his or her written objections to the council.”

“I plan to take the ten days,” said Poucher at Wednesday’s Council meeting.

The council then may choose to override the veto or reconsider the legislation. It would take a supermajority of the council to override the veto, which in this case would mean a majority of councilmembers, plus one.

Under the RCW, pocket vetoes are not allowed.

“If the mayor fails for ten days to either approve or veto an ordinance, it shall become valid without his or her approval,” says RCW 35A.12.130.

Poucher also said he was not considering a partial veto of the ordinance.

This would mark the first time in Poucher’s 12-year tenure as mayor that he uses the vetoing power available to him through state law.

While a supermajority voted in favor of the ordinance Wednesday night, city attorney Ken Woodrich explained during the meeting that the city council would still be required to reconsider the proposed ordinance at the next city council meeting.

At the Wednesday night meeting, the public hearing first was met by a reading of an email from Averie Morgan, recycling coordinator for the Klickitat County Solid Waste Department.

 “The issue with plastic bags isn’t that they are unrecyclable, they just can’t be recycled under a program like ours where all the material goes through a sorting line full of spinning wheels, belts and gears. The bags get stuck and cause the machines to break and need costly and dangerous repairs,” Morgan wrote.

Morgan noted many larger chains of grocery stores recycle their own bags, which some states require. But it is difficult when bags are not separated from other material. Morgan also said very few manufacturers exist out of China, which no longer imports American plastic material. Plastic bags, including the blue bags offered by the solid waste department are not accepted at the recycling center.

“This is not an ideal situation and we are exploring other possible options for the future,” Morgan wrote.

Community Upcycle organizer Anne Stringer presented her argument in favor of the ordinance before the council voted.

“The world’s awash in plastic… The vast majority of all plastic ever produced is still here today with us, building up in landfills or littering the planet, and ultimately breaking down into irretrievable microplastics that contaminate our air, soil, water and food… We now have a recycling crisis,” Stringer said.

“The proposed ordinance is an attempt to address this problem at a local level. Its requirements are based on other ordinances across the state which represent the established best practices to reduce waste in this context,” said Stringer.

Stringer said the crucial elements of the ordinance are the minimum requirements of the content the bags are made of. Each bag under the ordinance must be made of at least 40% minimum recycled content. Stringer also said the charge is a critical component.

“The charge is a proven, effective way to encourage customers to bring their own bags. And it’s absolutely critical to encourage reuse,” said Stringer.

“Without it, the environmental burden is simply transferred to paper or to thicker plastic,” Stringer added.

She cited a study of Portland’s ban on plastic bags in 2012, in which they did not mandate a charge on checkout bags. She said the City saw paper bag usage rise by 500%.

The hearing was met with criticism from the audience who was in support of Community Upcycle’s efforts after Poucher objected to the idea of a 10-cent minimum charge.

Poucher said his frustrations with the bill lie with the 10-cent minimum fee businesses would have to charge customers for each plastic or paper bag that meets the requirements of the bill.

Poucher also objected to the regulations on the types of bags that would be permitted under the proposed ordinance.

“I think what we need to do is go with industry best practices. That may change slightly as practices change,” said Poucher.

The 10-cent bag fee that would be charged to the customer would be collected by the retailer to “help compensate for the cost of the bag,” according to a letter given to the council by Community Upcycle.

“Hood River, if you’ll remember, passed the nickel and it was withdrawn after a month, because the people protested,” Poucher said.

“And here we are in White Salmon going to ask for twice that. And I just think it’s wrong, and I can’t accept it. And I will veto it.”

Oregon Governor Kate Brown recently signed a similar piece of legislation that would mandate retail establishments to charge customers a minimum of 5 cents per reusable bag, whether the bag is made of plastic, paper or fabric. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Poucher later clarified he is still considering the veto on the basis the 10-cent charge goes beyond what he believes government should do.

Poucher said he believes it should be up to the business owner to decide how much they want to charge. Poucher also said the proposal wouldn’t allow for specials like two-for-one sales or exemptions on double-bagging groceries.

“If you really are coming from a market-driven or capitalist viewpoint, I think there is a component of that where all of us want to pay for the goods that we think are worthy of paying for,” said Councilor Marla Keethler.

Keethler said there is already a cost behind the bags, which are ordinarily free for costumers of retail establishments, such as Harvest Market.

“This is simply bringing out some transparency of what the cost has always been,” said Keethler.

“We’re simply saying making the cost separate from folding it into the price of the goods available that they’re purchasing is putting the power back in the consumer,” Keethler said.

Twenty-seven businesses in White Salmon have ex-pressed support for the ordinance. President of Harvest Markets Jeff O’Neal wrote in a letter addressed to the city that “Harvest Market encourages and urges the White Salmon City Council to pass and enact the [ordinance].”

He added, “We believe the passage of this proposed ordinance is both timely and environmentally responsible.”

The meeting room was filled with close to 30 supporters of the ordinance. Sixteen people spoke in favor of the ordinance. No one from the public raised objections during the meeting.

“This is how the system is supposed to work. People have come tonight because we have posted it as a public hearing … We should be welcoming and encouraging all viewpoints. We heard from one perspective and so, if this passes, and people come out, then they should come and express their opportunity,” Keethler said.

“However, the opportunity before the legislation happens is now and we shouldn’t be shelving something or thinking about a way to approach it based on a silent majority or minority.”

Councilor Ashley Post said she was supportive of the exemptions given to benefits holders which would waive their fees on plastic bags.

“I think that was a very wise conclusion,” said Post. The ordinance opens the door for more exemptions from the 10-cent charge for people who receive government benefits.

She also agreed with Poucher about the credibility of the 10-cent charge.

“I definitely have the same questions … if it would be considered overbearing to dictate exactly how businesses should run,” Post said.

“My objection is not anything except that it’s a mandatory ten cents. I think it should be up to the business owner what they want to charge. If they want to charge ten cents or they want to charge a quarter, I’m alright with that,” Poucher said in response.

In a letter submitted to The Enterprise, Mayor Poucher said: “My problem, and perhaps all of ours is, while numerous people told me they were against the ten cents charge, not one showed up to the Public Hearing last night to oppose this ordinance.”

“With no opposition the Council rightly voted to pass this ordinance which was basically written by a very narrow special interest group,” Poucher wrote.

Councilor Donna Heimke was not present for the vote.

The City of Bingen amended the ordinance concerning checkout bags to eliminate the personal liability portion of the text. This way, it would ensure the business would be penalized for violating the ordinance.

Mayor Poucher has until Saturday to decide to veto the ordinance. The decision would be released along with a statement listing the reasons given for the veto.

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