Say goodbye to these, Michael
Say goodbye to these, Michael wingedwolf / Getty Images

Yesterday the Legislature dumped a big pile of plastic and Styrofoam a substance popularly known as but distinct from styrofoam on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk (metaphorically). If he wants to get rid of it, then all he needs to do is sign Senate Bill 5022. The bill, which easily passed the Legislature by wide margins, will reduce the amount of new plastic that gets made, pushing manufacturers to use more recycled material instead.

Because it’s a pretty wonky, industry-focused bill, you probably won’t even notice any impact from SB 5022, unless you’re the kind of thrill-seeker who monitors waste stream levels at material reclamation facilities. But there's one change that might catch your eye: No more chasing-arrow symbols on plastic packaging.

That’s a good thing, since nobody could ever figure out what the heck those things were supposed to mean. A number 2 surrounded by a triangle of arrows? Ah, yes, obviously that goes in the purple bucket, unless it’s got a lid, in which case it goes in the trash, unless the lid is under three inches in diameter, in which case it needs to be rinsed twice by a trained lemur, except if the jar was manufactured in Wisconsin, in which case it must be delivered to a wandering fortune teller when the wolf howls twice.

So that’s all going away.

Also goodbye and good riddance to Styrofoam a substance popularly known as but distinct from Styrofoam. As pedants (and, as we discovered after publishing this article, DuPont lawyers) will eagerly tell you, goodbye to polystyrene, since "Styrofoam" is actually DuPont's brand name for polystyrene foam. People use the term to refer to packing peanuts and cups and craft material and egg cartons, none of which are technically Styrofoam — the name is used generically, like Kleenex. Or at least, it's like Kleenex if every time you blew your nose you killed a sea turtle.

Washington will become the first state in the nation to ban those foam coolers that get used once and then thrown away, as well as plates and cups that will outlive you and the next hundred generations of your offspring. Washington will also be the first state where takeout restaurants have to give you an option for whether you want disposable tableware with your meal, including cup lids. (Currently, most places just give them to you whether you want them or not.)

But the really big deal is that a lot of the plastic waste that you buy at the grocery store will soon have to contain a minimum amount of recycled material. Soda bottles, sure, but also cleaning products, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent, and even trash bags. Milk and yogurt containers are included as well, no thanks to dirty companies such as Seattle-based Darigold, which tried to dodge responsibility for cleaning up their messes. Darigold and others wanted an exemption to the law, because … they felt like it? They lost that particular fight, though they will be given a few more years than other industries to come into compliance.

This is so important, SB 5022’s backers say, because without an economic incentive, plastic manufacturers will just keep churning out dirty packaging. By requiring a certain level of recycled material, the hope is that it’ll become profitable to be in the recycling business.

“A few years ago, we used to send our stuff to China, and they stopped taking it,” says Senator Mona Das, the bill’s sponsor. “Now there’s plastic everywhere and most of it ends up in the landfill because there’s no use for it. This bill is going to require minimum recycled content … that’s going to create a whole new market for recycled plastic.”

You’re unlikely to notice a change, says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington. “You’re taking the same resin, it’s just this is coming from post-consumer recycled material,” she says. “From a consumer’s perspective, it’s the same bottle.”

For Das, this is personal. Her father worked in aluminum recycling for six decades, and she saw how speedily material could be diverted from landfills. “As I grew up, I always knew a can would be a new can in 60 days,” she says. “That’s where I’m excited to get to with plastic.”

But that’s not what the future holds for polystyrene. That stuff can just go to Hell.

Das has a message for manufacturers of those cups and plates that have 500-year-breakdowns. “Look,” she says, “you’re in a dying industry. Everyone knows Styrofoam is toxic. Everyone hates Styrofoam. You need to make products out of something sustainable.”

(To be fair, and to calm the excitable lawyers of the Dow Chemical Company, Styrofoam is considered non-toxic if eaten, through the NIH and the EPA notes there are some signs that it is carcinogenic. The larger problem is that it’s difficult to recycle and it takes a long time to break down, so each foam tray will leach chemicals into the environment for literally centuries.)

Bottom line: We make a lot of garbage. Too much. We need to make less.

“It’s 2021. If it’s not reusable, recyclable, or compostable, it should no longer be made,” says Das.

“We want to have everything that the consumer receives be recyclable, compostable, and reusable,” says Trim. “That’s certainly not the case right now.”

Next in their crosshairs are those weird multi-material bags that coffee and chips come in, which can’t be recycled because they’re made out of so many different things. Also: Those foam trays for meat and foam boxes for eggs are currently exempted from the ban, so they might be tackled by future bills.

When asked what her ultimate environmental agenda is, Das doesn’t hold back. “Overhauling our entire waste stream,” she says.