State’s single-use plastic rules take effect in 2022
The next time you want a plastic fork or spoon, a straw, or a packet of ketchup or mustard, it won’t be automatic – you will have to make a special request or select what you need from a bin.
A new state law aimed at reducing single-use plastics takes effect Jan. 1, 2022. It also bans restaurants, delis and school cafeterias from automatically providing plastic lids for cold beverages.
Under the law, utensils can’t be packaged as a set – people will need to explicitly ask for a fork or knife. It’s acceptable to offer individual utensils in a bin so people can take what they need.
The law also applies to school cafeterias. It won’t require any big changes in the Methow Valley School District, which is careful about minimizing waste and has been recycling and composting items for years, Operations Director Bud Hover said.
Before COVID, the schools used metal silverware and permanent trays, which were washed after each meal. That’s one practice that had to be abandoned to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. Now students eat lunch outdoors when possible, and high school students eat in small groups throughout the building, Hover said.
With students so dispersed, it’s not practical to collect all the utensils and other materials – particularly with just five staff members in Food Services. The washable trays cost $8 or $9 apiece, so they can’t risk not having them all returned, Head Cook Laura Wottlin said. They still use the washable trays at breakfast, when there are fewer students, she said.
Since COVID, meals are free for all enrolled students, which has increased the number of students the schools serve each day – now, they feed more than 200 at each school for lunch, plus 90 for breakfast. Bagged lunches are delivered daily to the Independent Learning Center. “The free meals are one of the few COVID silver linings,” Methow Valley Elementary Principal Paul Gutzler said.
Last year, with students attending remotely at least several days a week, Food Services provided more than 300 bagged meals a day, delivered by bus drivers. Those meals provided vital support, but they naturally used more packaging and disposable items.
The state Department of Health also banned all self-serve options and salad bars during the pandemic. That means servers have to ask each child which foods they want, all of which adds time, Wottlin said.
“There are competing interests. The superintendent is clear that one of the most important things is to follow protocol so we don’t have to go back to remote learning,” Hover said. “We have to find a way to balance that with adjustments to Food Services.”
COVID and plastics
Concerns about COVID have derailed some measures intended to reduce plastic waste, and most likely increased the use of plastics in some establishments. Early in the pandemic, when scientists didn’t know how the virus was spread, many places prohibited customers from bringing reusable mugs or containers, and disposable gloves were widespread.
Wottlin is still waiting for dispensers that will provide a single fork or spoon when a lever is pushed, which, like so many items, are back-ordered. Biodegradable utensils are also unavailable. In the meantime, kids will have to ask for a fork or spoon, but that can be hard for the youngest kids to remember, she said.
Even before COVID, the school never used receptacles that would allow people to touch a whole bin of utensils, Wottlin said.
Durable items are best
Single-use plastics are still available – the main difference is that people have to ask for them, said Heather Church, the Eastern Washington waste reduction and recycling coordinator for the state Department of Ecology.
While Ecology understands concerns about COVID, the agency is strongly encouraging people to switch to durable items, Church said.
Forks, knives and spoons can be individually wrapped, but they can’t be bundled in a single package, she said. Having individually wrapped items isn’t ideal, but the law should cut down on people getting more utensils than they need and simply throwing them away, she said.
Although flimsy plastic wrappers will break into microplastics more quickly and stay in the environment, they produce less plastic waste than forks and knives, Church said.
The school district doesn’t use any wrapped utensils. They tried it at the high school and “there were wrappers all over the place,” Wottlin said. “There was garbage everywhere.”
More bans to come
Hot beverages, and drinks served at a drive-through window or for curbside pick-up, can be capped with lids without a special request. Beverages served at professional athletic or music events with at least 2,500 people can also be dispensed with lids.
Another law banning expanded polystyrene (often referred to as Styrofoam, a trademarked version of the material) goes into effect in stages. Starting in June 2023, polystyrene packing peanuts and other packaging will be banned. In June 2024, the ban will include polystyrene plates, cups, clam shells, trays and coolers. Packaging for raw meat and fish, produce and egg cartons, and portable coolers for drugs and medical devices will be exempt from the ban.
Expanded polystyrene materials are difficult and costly to recycle, and most of Washington’s residential recycling programs treat them as a contaminant. They are also brittle and break easily into tiny pieces, which scatter in the wind, according to Ecology.
Under the law, later this decade more plastics – such as plastic bags, and containers for milk and cleaning products – will have to be produced with a minimum amount of recycled plastic content.
The bans – and a requirement for minimum recycled content for some plastic items – are part of the Legislature’s crackdown on “problematic and unnecessary plastic packaging.”
Food-service establishments that don’t comply with the single-use plastics ban can be fined from $150 to $2,000 per day.