After signing SB 5022, Inslee meets with constituents, some of whom are fish
After signing SB 5022, Inslee meets with constituents, some of whom are fish. Matt Baume

This morning Governor Jay Inslee, Washington’s Official State Dad, swung by the Seattle Aquarium to sign a major new recycling bill into law. But first, he had a story to tell.

“I remember in 1969, The Graduate came out,” he said at the bill-signing this morning, recalling the famous party scene where someone tells Dustin Hoffman to steer his future toward “plastics.”

“I remember hearing that and thinking, ‘That’s one of the most environmentally catastrophic words in the English language,’” Inslee said. That seems … implausible, but not impossible I suppose. (To be fair, the first time I saw the famous “you’re trying to seduce me” scene I thought Mrs. Robinson walked off-camera and fell into a piano.)

But the point is that Washington just took the national lead on reducing plastic and polystyrene waste, and that’s going to mean big changes over the next few years — in the packaging that your food comes, in the trashbags you buy, and oh yes even the cups you get at fast-food joints.

The mood at the aquarium bill-signing was jubilant, with sponsor Mona Das moved to tears when she took the podium. “I’m going to take a moment,” she said, her voice wavering. “My family moved here from India with six dollars.” Her mother watched from a sear nearby as Das spoke about saving the planet that her family moved across, decades earlier.

SB 5022 is going to change four things about your life: First, no more forever-foam, the white puffy stuff that takes longer than your lifetime to biodegrade. No more packing peanuts, no more clamshell takeout boxes, no more disposable coolers.

Second: Utensils, straws, condiments, and cold beverage lids are going to be available by request only. They’ll still be available, you just get a choice now instead of them being forced on you. Farewell to that one weird drawer with the old corkscrews and 8-year-old soy sauce packets.

Third: No more triangle-arrow logo on plastic containers. What did those things mean, anyway? Literally nobody knows.

And fourth: Many of the plastic items you buy at the grocery store will need to contain a certain amount of recycled material — which will require that plastics manufacturers will have to get better at collecting old containers, something they barely even pretend to do right now.

Is this going to make materials more expensive, or increase costs for restaurants? That’s a claim that polluters love to make, that it’s simply too expensive to save the planet. They’re taking a chance that consumers would rather live in a cheap dump than pay a few cents to save the only home we have.

Inslee isn’t concerned about that. “New technologies come in and solve these problems,” he said when I accosted him by a fish tank where he was taking a picture of a seastar pressed up against the glass. “I was there for the first Earth Day,” he added. “Every time we try to step forward in reducing toxicity, what happens is technology responds. New industries are born, new products are born, new services are created.”

(Where exactly was he for the first Earth Day? Inslee couldn’t quite recall, but said it was either at college “dreaming of my soon-to-be wife,” or in Stockholm at the first UN conference on the environment.)

As long as I was bothering the governor, I figured I’d ask if he had any thoughts on putting a lid on I-5. “I really haven’t given thought to it,” he said (booooo), but added that he wants to see a transportation package pass this year. Alas, his first priority was maintaining vehicle infrastructure: repairing bridges and filling potholes. “Number two,” he said, “is all the different modalities.” So much for mister climate change.

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The just-ended legislative session was particularly disappointing when it comes to transportation, with lawmakers unable to do much more than rubber-stamp previous projects — including freeway widening, making room for even more polluting traffic jams. There’s $20 million set aside for walking, biking, and transit projects, and $849 million for roads. Oof.

But hey, today’s bill-signing wasn’t about air pollution, it was about plastic pollution, and at least we’re making headway on that front. SB 5022 was a project long in the works, and opposed by powerful industry groups (we’re looking at you, dirty Darigold). That Washington’s taking the lead on reducing plastic in landfills is cause for celebration, and for nudging leaders to do even better.

“To any little girl that looks like me, I want them to dream as big as they possibly can,” Das said today. “Because your dreams can come true.”