Plastic restrictions will phase in over two years


Bellingham is requiring that businesses ban the use of single-use plastics in take-out services,  requiring dine-in services to use reusable dining-ware, and hotels to use refillable products, a shift that will bring many new changes to both businesses and the environment of Bellingham.

The ordinance, originally presented by the city of Bellingham Public Works on March 9, 2020, was put on hold until now due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Bellingham City Council unanimously voted to advance it during the Council Meeting on May 10, 2021. The final vote will take place May 24 and the ordinance would begin in 2022.

Plastic waste has been growing in the environment and threatening the lives of animals in aquatic and terrestrial habitats, policy analyst Mark Gardner told the city council. There is also evidence of negative health effects from plastic particles and chemicals.

The ordinance aims to reduce waste by requiring reusable products for dine-in eating and by banning single-use plastic products in food service, marketing and lodging establishments. It allows some exemptions for disability accommodations and other needs.

The ordinance lays out the ban on single-use plastic in three sections. The first would take effect in July 2022 and would prohibit single-use plastic food service products, making only compostable or reusable items acceptable.

The next section, which would take effect in January 2023, would impact mainly grocery stores and bakeries with the requirement of no single-use plastics allowed in the way foods are repackaged for sale or distribution. The following section, taking effect in July 2022, states that restaurants must provide reusable food service packaging and utensils for dine-in eating. Compostable containers may be provided in the case of leftovers but all dine-in services are required to have reusable items.

The final section, taking effect in July 2023, affects hotels in requiring that all shampoos and soaps provided must be reusable.

Though this ordinance has been on delay, council members were happy to see the presentation once more and eager to make the vote for approval.

“I’m really glad that we are prioritizing this again and I feel as though a lot of good due diligence was done in regards to talking with our community and figuring out what’s going to work for them and how to adapt,” Council Member Pinky Vargas said during the Committee of the Whole meeting, May 10. “And also addressing with our ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] community what their needs are as well.”

The ordinance, if approved, will have exceptions for those of the ADA community for easier accessibility.

Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, also spoke at the Council meeting in support of the ordinance as some of her work includes advocacy related to local and state laws. Trim originally traveled to Bellingham before the pandemic to speak at the first proposal of this ordinance in March 2020, and feels just as strongly about it now as she did then.

“This ordinance will be very helpful, if it passes, because it is the best in the state for addressing plastic pollution regarding single-use plastics,” Trim said.

As part of her job, Trim also does beach and litter clean-up. In doing so, Trim says that the top 10 items her work picks up are made of plastic, most of which are related to take-out dining services. 

Council Member Hollie Huthman, as both a business owner and consumer, agreed this ordinance will take Bellingham toward a better future. Huthman is not only a council member, but also owner of the Shake Down and The Racket. They host live performances and sell food in downtown Bellingham.

Huthman has owned her business for 10 years and has seen the use of plastic evolve and change in her own work. In the past, Huthman used plastic straws, as that was the industry standard.

“Even if people don’t really want a straw, it’s a music venue so you can’t really do a lot of talking back and forth with us so you just always put a straw in the drink,” Huthman said. “On a super busy night, we would have just handfuls of straws.”

Huthman’s business has always valued recycling, making sure to utilize it whenever possible. However, items such as straws are not recyclable. According to Huthman, there were very often straws that weren’t ever used that would have to be thrown away at the end of the day. Eventually, Huthman switched to more expensive compostable straws and decided to stop including straws with drinks as standard procedure.

“We were actually pretty surprised at how often people would, not only not ask for a straw but they would save their straw if they came to get another drink and used that straw in their new drink,” Huthman said.

Huthman was surprised at how quickly people caught on and helped to reduce the waste they produced. Huthman realized she was actually spending less money on straws than before despite buying the more expensive product.

The council and supporters of the ordinance, like Trim, recognize that there may be some difficulty in the transition period if the ordinance passes and hope that the year before it takes effect will help businesses not only transition, but use up any backstock they might have before the ban.

“I think there will be some frustration because people will be forced to change the way that they are doing things and there might be some downsides to those ways of doing things,” Huthman said. “So there are things we’re going to have to adjust as well with this ban, but it’s great to know that we have a whole year to make this transition.”

Recognizing this difficulty, Bellingham City Council recommends the help of Sustainable Connections, which works to help small businesses become more environmentally friendly.

“I know that Sustainable Connections is willing to help all the small businesses on this transition to using products that are a lot better for our environment,” Vargas said.

The state of Washington had a similar plan ready to present but it too was put on pause due to Covid. Both Huthman and Trim are hopeful that, with the help of Sustainable Connections and the support of consumers, this transition in Bellingham could be a successful one that can create an example for the rest of the state and beyond.