Plastic bags and straws reined in with two bills passed by state Senate

Washington State Senate has tackled the problem of marine debris by approving one bill to ban the use of plastic grocery bags and a separate bill to discourage the use of plastic straws. Both bills have now moved over to the House of Representatives for possible concurrence.

Issues of waste, recycling and compostable materials have been the subject of much debate in the Legislature this year, with at least a dozen bills attempting to address these multiple problems.

Ban on plastic bags

If approved by the House, the statewide ban on plastic bags would follow the lead of 22 Washington cities and two counties, along with the states of California and Hawaii, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance. I have also reported in Water Ways on major steps taken by the European Union to reduce plastic pollution.

The legislation approved by the Senate, Senate Bill 5323, would prohibit retail stores from providing single-use carryout plastic bags. The ban does not include bags provided inside stores, such as those used for produce, meats, frozen foods and small hardware items. Also exempt are newspaper bags, door-hanger bags and dry cleaning bags.

Retailers may provide paper bags made of recycled content for a nonrefundable charge of 8 cents each. They may also sell carryout bags designed to be reusable — provided they are washable, made of recycled material and meet standards of durability.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Mona Das, D-Covington, said the measure is one step that can reduce some 8 million tons of plastics that wind up in the world’s oceans each year. Much of the plastics break down into tiny fragments eaten by marine organisms, becoming integrated into the food web.

“We’ve all seen the heartbreaking photos of animals choked by plastics and the frightening depictions of garbage islands in our oceans,” Das said, speaking on the floor of the Senate.

The senator said she first became aware of the problem years ago when she moved to Ireland and discovered that shoppers there have to pay for their bags or else bring their own from home.

“It was the first time that I realized the impact of plastic bags,” she added, “and I became a lifelong user of reusable bags… We realize that this (bill) won’t eliminate the plastic problem, but it is a good step.”

With more cities adopting plastic-bag bans as time goes on, retailers would like a uniform set of standards, she said. Many local jurisdictions have required a fee of 10 cents per paper bag, and the state legislation would not require a change in those fees.

Opposing the bill, Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale, said he grew up using paper bags, which supported a thriving timber industry. But plastic bags are more convenient, cheaper to produce and have an overall lower impact on the environment, considering the full life cycle of the material, he said.

But what really got to him in the debate over plastic bags, Erickson said, was how the Legislature believes it should establish a permanent retail price for an item, such as a paper bag.

“The fact that we, as a Legislature, think that we are able to determine the cost of the bag in a free-market society is just unbelievable to me,” he said, “which perhaps leads me to believe that we actually are not living in a free-market society in today’s Washington… It’s a very dangerous pathway we are on tonight.”

The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday, largely supported by Democrats, with four Republicans voting in favor of the ban.

Plastic straws

The legislation dealing with plastic straws, Senate Bill 5077, initially called for a total ban on single-use drinking straws in Washington state. But by the time the bill came up for a hearing on Jan. 24, many of the people testifying realized that some accommodations should be made for people with certain disabilities who need a plastic straw to drink safely.

As passed by the Senate, the bill would prohibit a food establishment from providing straws to customers unless the customer asks for one. They would be required to provide one if requested.

The prime sponsor, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said the legislation was first brought to her by a group of students from Lake Washington High School. Later, a group of younger students formed a group they called “The Straw Kids” and began pushing the idea of a straw ban.

Members of the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee couldn’t help but be charmed by the students, including 6-year-old Geneva Betnel, one of the Straw Kids.

“I challenge people to stop using plastic straws for one month,” Geneva said, “so they would think about stop using plastic straws completely, because plastic straws only get used one time and then they get throwed away. It’s not enough to say, ‘I don’t want a plastic straw,’ because people forget, she continued. “That has happened to me.”

Check out the video above for the testimony of the young supporters of the plastic straw legislation, many of whom mentioned the needs of disabled people.

Shaun Bickley of The ARC of King County said he was horrified that people are assuming that the state can do away with plastic drinking straws and nobody will be harmed.

“Making people find alternatives that don’t exist is very horrifying to me,” he said. “We could be talking about banning every other form of single-use plastic, but this is the one single-use plastic that people need. This is not a symbolic action to people whose lives and livelihoods depend on being able to do it.”

Aimee Champion of Self Advocates in Leadership said many of the non-plastic alternatives available to most people could create dangers for disabled people. Paper, glass, metal and bamboo all create problems, depending on the individual.

Kuderer said she listened to the concerns about the needs of disabled people and found ways to change the bill, allowing people who need straws to ask for them.

“The reason we focused on straws in the first place is that it seems like it would be a fairly simple thing for most of us to give up, and for most of us that’s true,” she said. “But for those who need them for medical reasons, it’s not an easy lift, and so it was appropriate that we amended the bill.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, was not impressed with the outcome.

“We’re talking about a plastic straw,” he said. “We’re talking about going to a restaurant and having someone inadvertently offer me a plastic straw and being in violation of this bill. Talk about an impractical bill. So I will be a very strong “no” on this, being a total waste of time and energy.”

Sen. Erickson said he understands that plastic is a worldwide problem that needs to be dealt with. But most of the plastic in the Pacific Ocean comes from Asia or gets dumped overboard from ships, he said.

It’s ironic, he noted, that a bill which started out to ban plastic straws now requires restaurants to have them on hand for disabled people who might ask for one.

Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, told Erickson that he does not agree that the plastic problem is mostly somewhere else. He often takes his grandchildren to play on the beaches along the Lower Columbia River.

“You wouldn’t believe how much there is on the beaches down there,” he said. “It’s not coming from ships out in the ocean; it’s coming down the Columbia River.

“No, this isn’t go to be a big deal to solve the plastic problem that we have out in the ocean or anywhere else,” he said, “but it is one of the small steps we can take. Then maybe when I go out on the beach to play with my grandchildren on the Lower Columbia, I’ll see just a little less plastic.”

The bill passed the Senate Monday on a 27-21 vote, entirely supported by Democrats, with two Dems registering a “no” vote. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing next Thursday before the House Environment and Energy Committee.

Other related legislation

One bill approved by the House Environment and Energy Committee addresses plastic food-service products, including containers, utensils, straws, plates, clamshells and lids.

The bill, House Bill 1632, would allow customers to obtain plastic food-service products only if they asked for them when eating onsite. For food businesses that do not provide a place to eat, the business operator may ask customers if they would like certain plastic items. Such food-service products may be placed in bins for the customer to take, but customers must have the option of taking only the utensils they need — as opposed to a bundle or package of utensils.

The long-term goal should be to replace plastic utensils and containers with compostable items or at least recyclable items, according to Heather Trim of Zero Waste Washington.

“Taco Time has already gone to compostable products, so it is doable,” she said.

Nora Nickum of Seattle Aquarium said the aquarium’s café converted to compostable utensils, coffee stirs and straws by 2010. It is now among 22 aquariums across the U.S. that have done away with single-use plastic straws, eliminating the disposal of 5 million straws per year.

Several other bills are attempting to increase the recycling of plastics by addressing collection, handling and marketing issues. Recycling experts say the biggest problems involve finding markets for the different types of plastics collected together or finding new ways to separate the materials. Companies in China had been taking an enormous amount of mixed plastics before last year, when they announced they would no longer take loads of plastic comingled with an excess of nonrecyclable materials, including garbage.

House Bill 1543, approved by the House on Wednesday, would create a new Recycling Development Center within the Department of Ecology to address recycling issues, including the so-called contamination problem.

House Bill 1569 is due for floor action. As amended, the bill would define different types of plastic products and compostable materials and prohibit anyone from mislabeling materials being sold or distributed. Products labeled as compostable would need to meet scientific standards for the rate of breakdown.

House Bill 5397, also due for floor action, calls on the Department of Ecology to assess the types of plastic packaging sold, managed and disposed of in Washington state. An independent consultant would conduct the report, including system costs passed on to state residents and businesses.

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