Bellingham jumps past statewide efforts to reduce plastic waste


Bellingham will ban single-use plastic and encourage compostable or reusable alternatives by city businesses, by unanimous vote of the city council on May 10, 2021.

The measure will take effect on July 31, 2022, providing businesses with enough time to phase qualifying single-use products out of their existing inventories and choose appropriate replacements. 

“This is an inevitable change, and I want Bellingham to be proud that we’re the leaders and that we can show that we can make it work,” said Council Member Hollie Huthman at Monday’s meeting. She is also co-owner of the downtown bar and music venue, The Shakedown

“This very directly affects me, and I will be voting in favor of it,” Huthman said. “The way that we use plastics is just not sustainable.”

The city council previously planned to vote on the proposed ordinance on May 24. However, it made an early decision due to potential overlap with a similar statewide measure, Senate Bill 5022, which recently passed the state Legislature and is awaiting approval from Gov. Jay Inslee.

SB5022 was first proposed last year, after the Washington State Department of Ecology contracted Cascade Consulting, an independent environmental sustainability firm, to study plastic packaging in Washington and provide policy recommendations.

Their research informed the state legislature’s decision that by January 2025, all plastic packaging must be 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable, contain 20% post-consumer recycled content, and be reduced when possible, optimizing the use to meet the need.

“Recycling just really doesn’t work,” said Council Member Michael Lilliquist. “It’s a bit of a sham, and un-recyclable plastics are a part of what we talk about on the Public Works Committee. We have a growing solid waste problem, and one of the best things we can do is simply put less plastic into the waste stream because it’s expensive for us to handle it, it isn’t recycled, and it isn’t a resource that we can make money off anymore.”

By approving the ordinance before June 1, Bellingham will legally enact its own single-use plastics ban, two years before the state does. Another key difference is that the city decided to include expanded polystyrene Styrofoam products in their ban, while the state did not. 

This is not the first time Bellingham officials have set an example for state lawmakers in environmental policy. 

Bellingham passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic carry-out bags in 2011. A statewide single-use plastic bag ban just took effect at the beginning of this year, a decade later.

Customers at Bellingham restaurants will likely notice the transition to the newest rules over the next several months. For example, takeout containers will be made of compostable materials, straws will be upon request only, and hotels and motels will have dispensers for toiletries rather than small, single-use bottles. 

“We have local organizations and many restaurants that will give people recommendations and multiple examples on what they can do,” Lilliquist said. “I do not think this will be a difficult transition.”

Bellingham nonprofit Sustainable Connections has partnered with Whatcom County to collaboratively advance sustainable business practices in the community and support the ordinance. 

Their Toward Zero Waste Campaign provides industry-specific coaching, assistance, and resources for businesses to be more environmentally friendly and reduce their waste by 50% or more. 

So far, they have helped 35 Bellingham businesses reduce their plastic and food waste with their Where To Go With To-Go campaign. Participating businesses pledge to phase out or shift at least 80% of their to-go ware to recyclable or compostable products. In return, they receive free, durable cutlery, educational materials and signage, and subsidies for replacing their single-use landfill items. 

“When the plastic bags ban was first passed, I know that it was sort of earth-shattering for many in the industry,” said Council Member Hannah Stone. “Bellingham was able to show by example that it is do-able and that it does have a positive impact on the environment. Similarly, here, this is a great opportunity to lead by example and to show that we can support businesses, there is a way to do that and make it work. It’s going to have a huge impact for years to come.”