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Reducing Plastic Pollution in the Evergreen State

New law passed in Washington to help keep our Pacific Northwest beaches free of plastics

styro cup
© tasken via Canva.com

The temperatures are rising, flowers are blooming, picnics are popping up in every green space around. It’s official: summer is here. And at the beginning of summer my thoughts always return to one place: the beach. It’s time to get out the towels, dust off my board shorts from winter storage and don those flip flops. It’s beach season again.

There’s no greater place to hear the call to protect natural beauty than the seaside. It is what drives us every year during the International Coastal Cleanup to ensure our beaches, coastlines and waterways are trash-free. And this year, as I go out to the Oregon coast I have an additional thing to celebrate: the passage of a new bill by our neighbors to the north in Washington that will help keep our Pacific Northwest beaches free of plastics.

Washington is reducing plastic pollution through SB 5022, signed into law this month. The bill includes one of the most expansive expanded polystyrene (EPS; foamed plastic) bans in the country. It not only includes foodservice packaging but packing peanuts and those white foam coolers you often see in summer. EPS packaging is particularly harmful to our environment because it easily fragments into smaller and smaller pieces, which makes it more likely to be eaten by fish and other wildlife. As someone who has seen entire beaches covered with what looks like EPS “snow,” I can assure you this is a big win for our environment and our ocean!

In addition to reducing waste, the bill also improves recycling in the state. The bill removes the confusing but popular three arrows logo on the bottom of most containers. This symbol has been used to imply that certain materials are technically recyclable, which all plastics are, even if that material isn’t actually accepted for recycling in most municipalities. This often results in good-intentioned people putting materials in their recycling bins that aren’t in fact recyclable in their community, making make it more challenging for recyclers to sort and manage the items that are recyclable.

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© Sergei Tokmakov

Along with removing some confusion from the process, the bill encourages recycling by putting a minimum recycled content standard in place for trash bags, beverage containers and bottles for personal care and cleaning products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 8-9% of plastics are recycled in the United States. Requiring minimum recycled content standards helps increase the demand for recycled plastics and makes sure the plastics people are recycling can have a new life in a future product.

The bill also makes single-use utensils, straws, condiment packages and cold beverage lids available on request only. I, like many of us, ordered a lot more takeout during the pandemic. This new policy makes it easy for people to request only what they actually need and keeps stray plastic spoons and soy sauce packets from languishing forever in kitchen drawers or, even worse, in our streams and on our beaches

This is a huge win for the state of Washington and for the ocean. When I go to the beach this summer, I will rest easy knowing more is being done to tackle plastic pollution and hope that other states will soon follow Washington’s lead. There is still plenty of work to be done, but this is a great step forward. You can help lead the charge for national solutions to the ocean plastics crisis by taking action today.

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