by Luisa Loi
Next time you eat at a fast-food restaurant in Bellingham, your fork might be given another chance at life and end up in a dishwasher rather than in a landfill.
Why? Because the City of Bellingham has taken one more step toward divorcing single-use plastics forever with a new ordinance passed in May 2021 and in effect since July 31.
And, it is a significant step. Brandi Hutton, who coordinates the Toward Zero Waste program, said Bellingham is the first city in the country to adopt such strict regulations.
“There are other plastic bans across the country,” she said. “But ours is sweeping. Even fast-food restaurants will be required to be a part of this. So, if you go to McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, or Taco Bell and eat on site, you have to be using durable dishware. And that’s new.”
In March, the City of Bellingham signed a $38,900 contract with Sustainable Connections. Under the Toward Zero Waste Program, Sustainable Connections has been educating local businesses on Bellingham’s new single-use plastics ordinance, according to Program Manager Jenna Deane.
“We want to protect our fragile marine environment and our health,” Deane said. “For those reasons, this is a great effort for us all to make as a community.”
Single-use plastics often contaminate the compost and recyclable waste systems, she said.
Even recyclable plastics used for foods and drinks in domestic and commercial settings can end up in the landfill. This happens when they’re not properly cleaned and dried, contaminating the recycling stream, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. Because reusables go through a dishwasher and compostables don’t need to be rinsed before being discarded, they represent a better option than replacing plastic with more plastic.
Ordinance Impacts 504 Bellingham Businesses
City ordinance 2021-05-023, overseen by the Department of Public Works, affects 504 businesses in Bellingham. The businesses that must comply include fast-food restaurants, cafes, delicatessens, coffee shops, grocery stores, hotels, theaters, home or business delivery services, school and business cafeterias, restaurants, catering trucks, convenience stores, vending trucks or carts operating in town, temporary stores or vendors (which can be found at farmers’ markets, street fairs, and festivals) department stores, liquor stores, and even pharmacies and hardware stores — if they sell any food or drinks that aren’t prepackaged.
When serving food, businesses must provide customers with utensils and service ware that is reusable (for dine-in) and BPI-certified (Biodegradable Products Institute) compostable for take-out. Individual condiment and sauce packages are only allowed for take-out orders, while bulk dispensers are required for on-site consumption, according to the ordinance.
Instead of using individually packaged personal care products like soap, shampoo and conditioner, lodgings will provide guests with refillable alternatives.
Businesses are still allowed to use the following until January 1, 2023: produce bags, catering trays, clear food wrap and shrink wrap, pads that absorb liquids in meat or seafood packages, containers for uniquely shaped foods (like cupcakes and deviled eggs), trays and containers for hot foods (like rotisserie chicken), and flexible plastic packaging that preserves moisture and freshness (also used for cookies).
These exemptions can only be extended until there are two reliable and available alternatives, and two available vendors to sell these products.
People With Disabilities
Deane said food trucks registered with Whatcom County must comply when they operate in Bellingham. Hunger relief organizations are exempt. The ordinance also specifies that people with disabilities may request accommodations, such as small soap bottles in their hotel rooms, or plastic straws — which allow them to drink and eat more comfortably. People with disabilities are not required to provide any documentation to receive accommodations, Solid Waste Manager Brandon Brubaker said.
Businesses that can’t afford a dishwasher due to financial hardship, limited space, or other challenges can petition the Department of Public Works to obtain a waiver for a year, which the business can renew. In the meantime, the business can use compostable products. According to Brubaker, some businesses have already filed for a waiver.
For many businesses, the switch to sustainable materials has already occurred. Last summer, Sustainable Connections ran the Where To Go With To-Go campaign to get businesses to switch to 80 percent compostable. Of the 200 businesses contacted, Hutton said 43 took the pledge.
To avoid surprises, Deane said Sustainable Connections has contacted all of the businesses affected by the ordinance, sending emails and distributing posters with translations in Spanish, Russian, Punjabi, Ukrainian, Chinese, Korean and Thai to reduce any language barriers. The nonprofit has also hosted virtual workshops and Q&As, further explaining the ordinance, answering questions and listening to concerns.
Businesses that violate the ordinance won’t be fined for the first infraction, even if they intentionally disregarded the ban.
First, the business receives a written notice that explains the nature of the infraction and how to comply. If the business violates the ordinance following its first notice, the owner or operator will be fined up to $250 per day for the first 20 days of the violation. After 20 days, the fine is bumped to $500 for each day the business doesn’t comply. Each day counts as a separate violation, according to the ordinance.
The city has received a lot of positive feedback, Brubaker said. “Many establishments feel supported in their continued efforts to separate trash, recycle, and compost waste to limit the use of single-use plastics and overall limit the amount of waste sent to landfills.”
Concerns remain, however.
Deane said some businesses worry that their compostables aren’t being properly handled. “If those compostables end up in the trash, they aren’t good there either,” she said, as their material won’t compost in a landfill without the proper conditions.
Brubaker said businesses must work with Sanitary Service Company (SSC) regarding how to discard their compostable materials, and that the city is working on providing residences with FoodPlus! compost bins from SSC to make sure waste is properly disposed of and delivered to a composting facility in Lynden.
A Challenge for Businesses
Some businesses have asked for more time to prepare for the ordinance, according to Brubaker. Despite the communication-first approach and the extensive outreach efforts, Deane and Hutton said some businesses may struggle to transition because the supply chain is slow, and because of other factors.
“There are going to be folks that are going to have a hard time making that transition for whatever reason, whether that’d be a language barrier, whether that be financial assistance, or whether it just be the education component,” Hutton said.
Whatcom Watch contacted more than a dozen businesses, most of which declined to comment.
Sage Against the Machine is an all-vegan food truck owned by Tara Folenius and Nate Johnson. In 2019, this small business became the first registered ocean-friendly food truck in Washington for its use of sustainable products, such as bamboo cutlery.
“We have been zero plastic since Day One,” Folenius said.
While they’re happy to hear about Bellingham’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution, they said many other businesses will struggle as compostable items are significantly more expensive than single-use ones, and compostable materials aren’t as effective as plastic in holding saucy or hot foods.
And, as the ordinance creates more demand for reusable and compostable materials, there might be less availability. Under these conditions, suppliers could decide to raise their costs.
“It might be a strain on our business if we can’t find compostable products when everybody starts buying compostable products,” Johnson said.
No Financial Assistance
The ordinance doesn’t offer any financial assistance for businesses that are transitioning, nor any reimbursement for the unsold single-use inventory.
“It would help struggling businesses that are coming out of a pandemic to have that assistance, but it is not currently available,” Hutton said.
Johnson and Folenius said the government should assist businesses by creating a tax credit or giving subsidies to incentivize the purchase of sustainable materials. Ideally, they’d like to see the government hold big companies who produce plastic accountable, rather than penalize small businesses.
Hutton suggested businesses could create a take-out fee to cover costs. “It might be a way to help someone,” she said. She also said buying reusables for on-site eating will help save money that would have been continuously spent on single-use items.
“Compostables are expensive now, but what if we create demand? Will we bring the price down a little bit?” Hutton said. “Because guess what, everybody’s going to be ordering the same products in Bellingham now from their suppliers. They’re creating a demand.”
Plastic pollution is a major environmental concern. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, every year the world produces 400 million tonnes of plastic waste. Only 9 percent of all the plastic produced in the United States is recycled, the city’s ordinance says. A report published on Beyond Plastics estimates that the production and disposal of plastic in the United States releases 232 million tons of greenhouse gasses each year.
“We’re not gonna recycle our way out of this,” Hutton said. “We’re literally drowning in plastic garbage. It’s in our oceans, it’s in our bloodstream, it’s in our environment. As long as virgin plastics are cheaper to produce than recycling plastics, we’re gonna just continue to just create more garbage than we know how to handle.”
For more information about the ordinance, visit https://sustainableconnections.org/single-use-plastics/ and https://cob.org/services/environment/plastic-bag-ban.
Single-Use Plastic Restrictions in Bellingham and Washington
• Ordinance 2021-05-023 (discussed in article)
Passed in May 2021 and in effect since July 31, this ordinance requires food service and lodging businesses in Bellingham to use reusable food service ware for on-site dining and compostable service ware for take-out, and prohibits lodging businesses from stocking rooms with travel-size personal care products.
• State Senate Bill 5022
This ordinance went into effect on January 1, 2022, and requires food service businesses in Washington to provide disposable service ware only upon request. Individual single-use items and condiments can be made available for customers if they desire.
• State Senate Bill 5323
Effective since October 2021, this ordinance prohibits all retail businesses in the state from distributing plastic bags. Retailers must charge a fee of $0.08 per paper bag and thick plastic bags. Paper bags are required to be compostable and made with a minimum of 40 percent recycled material, while the plastic bags must be at least 2.25 mils thick and be made with a minimum of 20 percent of recycled material. This ordinance replaced Bellingham’s 2012 plastic bag ban.
Luisa Loi is a student reporter based in Bellingham, with an interest in covering local environmental issues. You can learn more about Luisa through her LinkedIn (Luisa Loi), or by reaching out to firstname.lastname@example.org