by Giovanni Roverso
The city of Bellingham’s Public Works and Natural Resources Committee began discussing a draft ordinance on single-use plastic in 2020. The ordinance would ban most forms of single-use plastic foodware and hotel personal care mini-containers.
However, in March 2020, it was put on the back burner a week after it was introduced for discussion because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among the organizations supporting the Bellingham ordinance is nonprofit RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. Ander Russell, senior environmental advocate there, focuses on climate adaptation and resilience work, as well as plastics.
“We don’t — nor the City Council — want to put any more burden on some, especially, of these smaller food-related businesses,” they said. “At this point, they’re still struggling.”
While a statewide law banning thin plastic carry home bags passed the Washington state Legislature and was signed by the governor in March 2020 (SB 5323), the January 1, 2021, start date also fell victim to Covid-19 over safety and economic concerns, making paper bag use optional.
Bellingham’s bag ordinance, which had been active since 2011, was also put on hold until the state of emergency over the pandemic ends. It will be pre-empted by the state law when it goes into effect.
In the meantime, legislators have been making progress on a new bill concerning plastics pollution and recycling, Senate Bill 5022, passing the senate and landing in the house in March.
Plastics Bill Progresses in Olympia
The bill has three components: a ban on certain forms of expanded polystyrene (commonly known as the brand, Styrofoam), a mandate that single-use food serviceware be optional, and a mandate for minimum recycled content for plastic containers and bags.
A bill on minimum recycled content for beverage containers passed both houses in 2020, but Governor Jay Inslee vetoed it when the pandemic struck, said Heather Trim, executive director of the nonprofit Zero Waste Washington.
“Which was really too bad, because it would have been the first in the nation and the best in the world,” she said.
2021 was originally going to be the year state legislators worked on a big bill overhauling Washington’s recycling system.
The governor vetoed 147 bills and budget items on the last day of the 2020 legislative session in order to alleviate the economic crisis, she said.
“Because of Covid, and the legislative restrictions […], there was a need for a slimmed down bill for this year,” Trim said, “with important first steps to build towards future policy actions in the next few years.”
While SB 5022 would ban expanded polystyrene, it would still allow single-use plastic utensils available on request. However, Bellingham would take the ban further.
Banning Single-Use Plastics
Now, one year later, Bellingham councilmember and committee chair Michael Lilliquist said he thinks it’s time to resume work on the ordinance.
Lilliquist said that he had not spoken to any other councilmembers about a new timeline for the ordinance’s implementation and compliance dates yet. But he said his first thought was to have the ban start kicking in by June 2023, at least. That’s the date the state ban on some forms of expanded polystyrene products would go into effect, if successful.
A first wave of plastic products to be banned would include straws, cutlery, plates, bowls, cups and beverage containers and lids, and condiment containers (except for prepackaged foods).
“They did a lot of legwork going into the ordinance to check in with representatives from multi-store restaurant chains, advocates for folks with disabilities, grocery businesses, hospitality businesses,” Ander Russell of RE Sources said.
Starting up the process again would involve checking back in with everyone the council did outreach to and scheduling a public hearing, they said.
In 2008, Seattle banned expanded polystyrene foodware and required that foodware be recyclable or compostable. This ban included plastic straws and plastic utensils, but that component was not implemented until 2018, making Seattle the first city in the nation to effectively ban plastic utensils and straws.
But the ban drew backlash because it did not make an exception for people with disabilities who depend on flexible straws.
“Their consultation with advocates for those with disabilities was not great,” Russell said. “I think that’s a great example for other places.”
Bellingham’s ordinance would instead require the plastic straws to be kept in stock for those who need them.
The second wave of the ban would take effect the following year to include plastic produce bags, food wrap, shrink wrap, uniquely shaped food containers, catering trays, and containers and trays for hot meal items.
The hospitality industry would also see restrictions in being able to offer single-use mini-bottle personal care products, unless guests with a disability required them. The alternative would be something like refillable pumps for soaps and shampoos.
Food service establishments would be required to provide reusable plates/bowls/baskets, cups and utensils for people dining in.
Both the Bellingham ordinance and SB 5022 would ban some forms of expanded polystyrene. But the only other plastic ban SB 5022 would mandate is the packaging used to bundle single-use eating utensils. Prohibiting bundling utensils would help ensure people only use what they need.
Compared to Senate Bill 5022
In regard to single-use cutlery, straws, cup lids and condiment containers, SB 5022 would require food service businesses to provide such items only upon request if they offer on-site dining. At drive-throughs and businesses without on-site dining, customers would have to confirm they want such items first — although some exceptions for beverage lids are included in the bill.
Expanded polystyrene products would be banned in most forms of food containers, cups and plates, as well as food coolers and packing peanuts. Exceptions would include prepackaged foods, packaging for raw meat, seafood, eggs, fruit or vegetables. Expanded polystyrene packaging would also still be allowed at wholesale or retail establishments.
In the senate hearing, some recyclers spoke out about the bill, saying they would like to see more recycled content mandates. In response, a striking amendment on the senate floor was added to include requirements for household cleaning and personal care containers, and trash bags. (You can read more about the pro, con and other statements in the engrossed second-substitute bill itself.)
The senate bill may not seem as tough on single-item plastic utensils as Bellingham’s draft ordinance, but a statewide single-use item ban would be much more disruptive than at the city scale.
A large-scale surge in demand for compostable alternatives would take time for the market to accommodate, plus, many single-use items would still have a significant ecological impact if disposed of improperly (i.e., not industrially composted). At the state level, the recycling crisis needs to be tackled more systematically.
The most defining feature of the state bill is how it would affect the recycling stream. It would establish a gradual increase in the amount of recycled plastic content to be required in certain plastic containers.
These include trash bags, household cleaning and personal care product containers, and bottles and jugs for beverages. Requirements for dairy milk beverages would kick in later because of a compromise made with the dairy industry.
Each plastic product category would see its minimums increased in three phases.
• Beverage containers would require: at least 15 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2023 through Dec. 2024, at least 25 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2025 through Dec. 2026, and at least 50 percent recycled plastic content starting Jan. 2027.
• Dairy milk beverage containers: at least 15 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2028 through Dec. 2030, at least 25 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2031 through Dec. 2035, and at least 50 percent recycled plastic content starting Jan. 2036.
• Household cleaning and personal product containers would require: at least 15 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2025 through Dec. 2027, at least 25 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2028 through Dec. 2030, and at least 50 percent recycled plastic content starting Jan. 2031.
• Trash bags would require: at least 10 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2023 through Dec. 2024, at least 15 percent recycled plastic content Jan. 2025 through Dec. 2026, and at least 20 percent recycled plastic content starting Jan. 2027.
Increasing Value and Reducing Confusion
Major corporations like Procter & Gamble, Trim said, have already publicized corporate goals of using recycled content in household cleaning and personal product bottles and jugs. Currently, the most valuable types of plastic are type-1 and type-2.
With minimum recycled content requirements, you can have more value in the recycling system, and not just for commonly recycled plastics.
The bill would not just add value to some plastics, but unassign value where none exists.
“Right now, our law in Washington says you have to have the chasing arrow symbol on plastic packaging,” Trim said. “And that’s the problem, because it makes all the consumers think ‘Oh, these are recyclable,’ when there are definitely things that are not recyclable.”
Trim said blanket recycling symbol laws such as Washington’s are still in place in 27 states and date back to the early days of recycling. But such laws make improving the standards for wording and symbolism at the federal level difficult.
“We see these pieces as very good steps,” Trim said. “But we do see that a more comprehensive revamping of our recycling system is still needed.”
Catalyzing a Systems Change
Such an overhaul of the recycling industry would be conducted through the lens of a concept called “producer responsibility,” whereby producers are responsible for packaging recycling. In Washington, this already happens with e-waste, mercury light bulbs, and paint, for example.
“This is not at all a new concept,” Trim said. “For packaging, it’s been in place for decades in places like Europe, up to a decade in Canada, depending on the province, as well as some other countries.”
Such a bill would be a major step of what Trim said is essentially a multiyear bill that started in 2019.
“It’s a full product stewardship bill for all materials: metal, glass, paper, plastic — and it’s a big deal bill.” Trim said. “It’s actually now been used as the basis for a bill in Hawaii, for example.”
It started with House Bill 1543, signed into law in April 2019. It declared a state of emergency over the state of recycling and began laying down the necessary infrastructure groundwork to develop end markets for recyclable materials.
HB 1543 established the Recycling Development Center within the Department of Ecology, guided by an advisory board. Financial structures were established too. It formed an account within the state treasury named “the waste reduction, recycling, and litter control account.” The bill also updated requirements and opportunities for cities and counties in terms of their comprehensive solid waste management plans, for example.
In the same session, the Legislature also passed Senate Bill 5397, which required that the Washington State Department of Ecology hire a third-party independent contractor to study plastic packaging and make recommendations in preparation for the 2020 legislative session.
The resulting report detailed 10 recommendations. Four of these are being addressed in this year’s SB5022 in the Legislature, Trim said.
A big effort is being planned for 2022.
The Go-Big-or-Go-Home Bill
“We’re calling it next year’s omnibus bill,” Trim said. “By 2030, […] when you buy items like cereal or you buy a TV, every single component that is coming as packaging would have to be recyclable, compostable, or reusable.”
The bill would not only apply to plastic, but to paper, aluminum, steel and glass used in packaging too, so, anything used to protect, contain, transport, or serve a product.
A similar bill, Trim said, failed in California in August 2020 by a mere four votes. That bill would have set the “100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable” target to be in effect by 2032 — two years later than Washington’s deadline.
“It takes a lot of work to get something like this passed,” Trim said.
In 2022, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would attempt to tackle the recycling problem from a different angle. It would set up a series of recycling system improvements made by the state and funded via a tax on plastic products.
But a Washington version, Trim said, could mandate that producers pay a fee for a program which, in turn, pays for the recycling system.
“So, they will have their own manufacturer-run program,” she said. “They will then themselves organize their board of directors, [and] they will decide how much they charge each other to run the program.”
For now, the Democrat-controlled Legislature is still ironing out SB 5022. The bill is going to require that the Bellingham City Council adjust its draft ordinance, at least a bit.
Complications for Local Ordinances
SB5022 includes three preemptions, which would keep cities and counties from passing similar legislation. Two of these would affect Bellingham’s ability to enact its own ordinance:
• One preemption would prohibit ordinances that restrict expanded polystyrene, unless the ordinance was filed by April 1, 2021, and enacted by June 1, 2021.
• The other preemption would prohibit ordinances to be enacted after July 1, 2021, that are designed to reduce pollution via a requirement that single-use food service products be provided only upon request.
Lilliquist said this last preemption could be problematic and was not yet sure if it would leave room for an outright ban.
“We may need to act very quickly or not at all,” Lilliquist said.
Hannah Sabio Howell, Senate Democratic Caucus communications specialist for senators Das, Randall, Robinson and the Senate Members of Color Caucus, was able to shine some light on the matter after consulting policy experts available to her.
“The preemption wouldn’t cover outright bans across the jurisdiction since the preemption only applies to an ordinance specific to customer requests of single-use food service products,” she said. “I believe it was written specifically that way so that it created some statewide consistency with regards to single-use provisions, but not to go beyond this, and preempt bans.”
In the meantime, businesses that are willing and able have been transitioning to compostable single-use items and to-go containers.
Businesses Going Compostable
In Bellingham, nonprofit Sustainable Connections has been providing advice and technical assistance to food service businesses as a part of its Toward Zero Waste program.
So far, Sustainable Connections has 30 participants listed as local businesses who have pledged to reduce at least 80 percent of their waste by switching to reusable and compostable packaging and utensils.
The nonprofit even has some limited funding available to subsidize the transition and offers promotional content to businesses to help advertise their switch.
Sustainable Connections has also been working to ensure businesses are using the right biodegradable or compostable products. Standards have been improving dramatically in Washington, but the situation was not good just a few years ago.
Raising the Bar
Before another bill, House Bill 1569, went into effect in July 2020, several products were being sold with deceptive labeling that made them appear to be biodegradable or compostable. To prevent confusion, the new law prohibits labeling products with the terms “biodegradable,” “degradable,” “decomposable” or “oxo-degradable.”
Unless a compostable product is made of wood or fiber-based substrate, the law requires them to be certified with a visible logo showing that they meet the American Society for Testing and Materials’ standards, such as the Biodegradable Products Institute logo.
Some foodware, Sustainable Connections warns, are strengthened with fluorinated coatings called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can be toxic. This can happen when the molecules are exposed to warmth and moisture for more than 15 minutes, allowing them to contaminate food.
This information is available in a Center for Environmental Health report called, “Avoiding Hidden Hazards.” This 2018 report found that 79 out of 138 foodware products tested contained significant levels of PFAS.
Zero Waste Washington participated in a study of PFAS which found the compounds in samples of U.S. compost.
All of the molded fiber foodware tested for the report was also found to contain PFAS, even the ones approved by trusted product certifiers, Biodegradable Products Institute, Cedar Grove, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and Green Seal.
But Trim said the market is shifting.
“Manufacturers are working very hard to get PFAS out of their products.”
Plus, in 2018, Washington also passed a first-in-nation bill, HB 2658, banning compostable products that use PFAS effective in 2022.
But, regardless, compost has also been found to contain plastic particles and those won’t stop any time soon.
Toxic Microplastics Everywhere
The 2019 Center for International Environmental Law report, “Plastic & Health — The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet,” is an overview of the health impacts associated with the plastic pollution crisis.
Among many other findings, it reported on a recent study that looked at fertilizers made from fermented biowaste and household compost. The study found microplastics in all samples and that the most abundant types of plastic were associated with food packaging.
In fact, it’s common for paper foodware to be coated with plastic as well, like milk cartons, but it can be difficult to tell some containers apart from compostable ones. These can range from to-go boxes, plates, cups, ice cream containers, sugar and tea bag packets, to plastic-lined butcher and deli paper.
“We know that these single-use plastics, specifically single-use plastics that are used for food consumption, can’t be recycled,” Russell said. “We also know that they don’t go away, they just get smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Plastic enters the environment from all angles. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only 8.7 percent of all municipal solid plastic waste was recycled in 2018. Then, 15.7 percent was incinerated, and 75.6 percent was received by landfills.
A significant portion of plastic recycling has been sent overseas as well. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that more than one million metric tonnes were exported, or one-third of all plastic recycling. Almost 80 percent of this went to countries that have trouble managing waste and are known to be significant sources of ocean pollution, according to the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition. This may well change though, since new Basel Convention amendments now restrict the import of much of this material.
A lot of plastic around the world never even makes it into the municipal waste stream and ends up in the ground and waterbodies.
Eleanor Hines, RE Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper and lead scientist, said plastics have been found everywhere, be it the top of glaciers, the bottom of the ocean, in plankton, camel stomachs in the desert and beer. No place seems to be safe.
As plastics break down into microplastics, they can release toxins and toxic additives the polymers were combined with during manufacturing. They can also pick up other toxicants along the way, Hines said. Microplastics eventually break down into nanoplastics.
“These are small enough that they can get into organs and can cross the blood/brain barrier,” Hines said.
They also can impact behavior in fish and other species, she said.
Giovanni A. Roverso is an Italian-American visual journalism major at Western Washington University. Portfolio and blog at www.giovanniroverso.com.