Washington considers banning disposable plastics in restaurants and grocery stores

Your favorite takeout spot could go compostable-only under a legislative proposal.

plastic utensils

Plastic forks and knives, often available in office buildings and at takeout counters, may soon become a thing of the past if a proposed Washington state ban on plastic “food-service products” gains legislative approval. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

Amid worries about the mounting environmental and public-health costs of disposable plastic, Washington lawmakers are considering forcing the state’s takeout industry to go compostable-only.

Proposed legislation would create a phased-in ban on plastic “food-service products” accompanying ready-to-eat food — a lengthy list of items including containers, bowls, bottles, meat trays, produce sacks, utensils, tea bags and sandwich wrap. House Bill 2656 would also impose a penny-per-item fee on disposable goods to fund a multi-million-dollar upgrade of composting facilities in the state, most of which can’t process compostable utensils and containers.

The ban’s impact would first be felt in King and Snohomish counties, the only counties in the state with facilities capable of handling compostable food-service items. The plastics ban, set to begin in January 2022, would go into effect only in areas where those products can actually be composted. By 2030, the restrictions would apply statewide.

The grocery, restaurant and chemical industries have opposed aspects of the bill, and are particularly dissatisfied with the fee. They contend existing state revenues, including a tax on takeout containers, should pay for modernization.

Public concern over plastic waste has already prompted action by local governments in Washington state, similar legislation in other states and broad bans in Canada, the European Union, Taiwan and China.

Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, lead sponsor of House Bill 2656, said the fact that whole nations have stepped back from disposable plastic shows that a state like Washington can manage it. Co-sponsors of the measure include Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy.

“We can't recycle our way out of this crisis,” said Gregerson. “We can't organize each individual city one at a time and work our way out of this. We have to be the adults in the room.”

Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, are sponsoring legislation that would partly ban disposable plastic while upgrading America’s solid waste infrastructure. The federal legislation, which has not drawn any Republican co-sponsors, would phase out many single-use items while creating a national bottle and can refund program, establishing a fee for carryout bags and pausing construction of new plastic manufacturing plants.

“Plastic production is a major driver of pollution accelerating the climate crisis,” U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, said in a prepared statement earlier in February announcing the legislation, called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. “An America innovative enough to create a million uses for plastic is innovative enough to create better alternatives.”

Only about 8% of the 35 million tons of plastic produced annually in the United States is recycled, and about 303,600 tons of America’s plastic waste winds up as litter just in the zone within about 30 miles of the coast. Plastic can also pose a public health threat; high levels of “microplastics,” released as plastic degrades, are almost always found in American drinking water. And the situation has become a bit gross — a recent study at the University of Newcastle, Australia, paid for by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature found most people consume a credit card's weight in plastic each week.

Because of opposition over the fees, Gregerson’s bill may not reach the House floor. Other bills related to plastic waste still in play during the legislative session, which ends March 12, include:

  • Senate Bill 6213: The legislation would institute a statewide ban on a variety of polystyrene products — certain containers, coolers and packing materials — beginning in June 2022. Packaging for meat, fish, vegetables and eggs would not be impacted.
  • Senate Bill 5323: Retailers would be required to charge customers 8 cents for a large paper or plastic bags. The bill also establishes a minimum recycled content threshold for bags.
  • Senate Bill 6278: Construction of water bottling plants would be blocked by a new prohibition on providing water rights to new bottlers.

The most noticeable change put forward in Gregerson’s bill is also its least controversial. The legislation requires order takers to inquire before handing diners straws, utensils or condiment packs — the idea being that, if asked, some Washingtonians would decline to reduce waste.

Less obvious to consumers would be the new fees, up to a penny, depending on whether the item is recyclable or compostable. Fees would be paid by the company that buys the item for use by the customer; customers wouldn’t see a new charge on their receipts, but the cost could be passed along in higher prices.

That penny-per-item fee has sapped support for the legislation, said Dye, the representative from Pomeroy, who is involved in negotiations on the bill.

Dye lauded aspects of the legislation but said she could not support the fee. As she described it, the fee would have an “egregious impact” on farmers preparing ready-to-eat food like hard-boiled eggs.

“People don’t recognize how the money flows in the food industry, but the farmers themselves don’t have a lot of ability to negotiate the price for their products,” she said. “It costs money to process their product and prepare it for sale, and that cost is borne by the grower.”

Lobbyists for the grocery and restaurant industries are asking that the fees be cut from the legislation. To-go containers are already taxed to fund a state anti-litter program, and industry representatives note that per-item fees grow rapidly when levied on boxes of forks and stacks of cups.

“It may seem like it’s just a penny, but it gets [big] in a hurry,” said Holly Chisa of the Northwest Grocery Association.

All those pennies would add up to about $18 million in 2023, the first full year the fee would be collected, and that sum is expected to rise steadily each year through 2030. Significant operating costs of more than $1 million in the program’s first year are expected to shrink as it rolls forward.

That revenue would fund improvements to composting facilities in the state, facilities that proponents note have ample room for improvement.

At present, nine of the state’s 13 compost facilities don’t process compostable food packaging and utensils. Plant operators have been reluctant to take on food waste because it takes more heat and time than yard waste to be converted into compost. Trash also tends to be thrown into the mix, complicating composting and recycling.

“We need to start removing items from the system so we can better get at the things we can recycle,” Neil Beaver, a lobbyist for solid waste handler Recology, told a state House committee in January.

Speaking at the same hearing, Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, noted that most consumers underestimate how finicky recycling systems can be.

“When you have a clamshell [plastic container] … and it has food waste on it, it is not recyclable,” said Trim, whose waste-reduction organization supports the legislation. “That is contamination in the recycling stream.”

By Trim’s count, 10 local governments in Washington have already enacted prohibitions on single-use plastics. Seattle has restricted nonrecyclable food-service items for more than a decade, and banned plastic straws and utensils in 2018.

Dye and others advocate using the existing tax on takeout containers to fund improvements to composting facilities, while Gregerson sees the fee as crucial to funding Washington’s movement away from disposables.

“I know the fee is always going to be controversial,” the representative from SeaTac said. “But we have to resource the entire system to make sure we are … supporting industry to provide products that we actually can be responsible with, so we can shift the way we live.”

Under the legislation, local governments would, with financial help from the state, begin to make single-use-item composting available. Once it is, restaurants and grocers in those communities would be prohibited from using nonrecyclable, noncompostable items.

The goal is to take all single-use plastic utensils, plastic wrap and plastic packaging out of takeout dining. But there is a caveat — the state Department of Ecology could waive restrictions on items for which no good alternative exists and for businesses that demonstrate a special need.

At present, there are no widely available alternatives to plastic wrap or many plastic containers used to handle hot foods, particularly hot meats. The legislation leaves it to the Department of Ecology to determine when those items would be banned in the state.

Regulators expect the new rules to be complex and controversial, and Department of Ecology leaders warned the legislation may trip up efforts the agency launched last year at the Legislature’s direction.

“We concur that getting single-use plastics out of the environment is crucial,” said Laurie Davies, manager of the Department of Ecology’s solid waste program.

“We’re working on it,” continued Davies, speaking to the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, “so I think this legislation might be a little premature.”

One 2019 law requires cities and counties to develop solid waste plans that reduce contamination of compostable or recyclable materials, while another directed the Department of Ecology to put together a report by October 2020 to guide efforts aimed at reducing plastic waste in Washington.

While the legislation won’t remove plastics from grocery shelves or ban plastic grocery bags, it has stirred concern among food processors and others who make extensive use of plastic packaging. Dan Coyne, a lobbyist for Food Northwest, the processors’ trade association, told legislators his clients worry their industry will face regulation next.

“We look at this as simply being a tax on food that we produce,” Coyne said during a House hearing in February. “This could be the proverbial camel’s nose into the tent.”

Dye said she believes market pressures may make legislation unnecessary. Consumer interest, in her view, is already pushing retailers toward compostable products.

“That’s the wonderful thing about living in our country — we’re able to do these changes through market forces,” Dye said. “We already have a great deal of momentum in the industry to provide products that please customers … in a positive way for our environment.”

Gregerson said the bill may receive a vote during a House Appropriations Committee hearing Thursday. If passed, it could then proceed to the House floor for a vote. To become law, it would then have to pass the Senate and be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Levi Pulkkinen

Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle-based journalist specializing in law and justice issues in the Pacific Northwest.