Comment: New plastics law relies on recycling that isn’t there

A new law requires recycled content in packaging, but our recycling system isn’t up to the job.

By Theo Martin / For The Herald

Gov. Jay Inslee’s enactment of a sweeping new sustainability law last month was heralded by environmentalists in Washington state as a major step toward reaching the state’s ambitious environmental goals because it placed strict requirements on manufacturers to use recycled plastics in the production of plastic packaging. The move is indeed important, if only because it underscores the urgent need to promote the use of sustainable materials to reduce waste and preserve natural resources.

But the new law has at least one significant shortcoming. Despite the substantial investments that have been made in recycling programs in Washington state and across the nation in recent decades, an insufficient amount of recycled plastic waste is currently being diverted or reclaimed from dumps to adequately supply manufacturers dependent on recycled materials for their production process.

As a result, the law creates something of catch-22 situation. Companies are suddenly responsible for meeting ambitious — and laudable — sustainability goals. But without an adequate supply of recycled plastic waste to use as raw materials for production, companies won’t be able to meet those goals.

In this context, the mandates are onerous and will almost certainly drive up the cost of packaging for all sorts of products. And the bulk of these new costs will be borne by households and small businesses like my own at a time when the economy is still struggling to recover from the covid-19 pandemic.

A more practical and much-needed solution — in the immediate term, at least — would be to focus our efforts on bolstering existing recycling programs and expanding public education around them rather than pinning our hopes on a well-meaning law that creates logistical hurdles and headaches.

The events in Washington are being closely watched nationwide, given the state’s reputation as an environmental leader and the challenges confronting recycling programs around the country.

Consider how the new law in Washington works: Plastic beverage containers will now be required to use at least 15 percent recycled content by 2023 to be sold in Washington. The requirement will ramp up to 50 percent by 2031. These requirements go further than any state in the country; even surpassing California, which became the first state to pass a minimum recycled content law for plastic beverage containers last year.

Not only does this approach fail to take into account the difficulties confronting any organization already making sustainability a core value in its production process. It overlooks the way covid-19 has completely upended the recycling infrastructure, causing a dramatic shift in how recycled content is now collected, sorted and processed.

Americans generated a staggering amount of residential waste as the pandemic drove workers from offices and into their homes. And it turns out that Washington households, when left on their own, are more inclined to just toss everything in the blue recycling bin; whether it’s fit to go in there or not. This kind of well-intentioned “wishcycling” has enormous costs for municipalities, which cannot afford the rising costs of increased labor dedicated to sorting contaminated waste streams.

At the same time, more recyclers and reclaimers are expressing concerns that they are unable to use any materials they could collect. According to a survey from the National Waste & Recycling Association, nearly 1 in 3 recyclers now report sending recycling directly to landfill or only being able to conduct minimal sorting as a result of pandemic.

The result is that instead of moving us closer to reaching our environmental aims, municipalities are being even more hamstrung; undermining the efforts that this law seeks to achieve. Take Walla Walla, for example, where the city council voted to eliminate plastics earlier this year as an accepted recycling material entirely because of the costly contamination with other products. As costs continue to pile up for cities and towns across Washington, we may see more make similar difficult decisions.

Washington has long prided itself on being a national leader when it comes to sustainability. And if that’s indeed the case, then this kind of legislation Gov. Inslee recently signed has the potential to be replicated in other states across the country. And what would that accomplish, given that our national recycling system is already struggling near the brink?

We need to get back to basics. Lawmakers in Washington should consider legislation that will really address the issue of sustainability. That means educating consumers about what can actually be recycled, and implementing stronger curbside collection practices with a more comprehensive understanding of how the system works. Washington’s environment and our sustainable future depend on it.

Theo Martin is owner of Island Soul restaurant in Columbia City, a Seattle neighborhood.

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