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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Restaurants worry about new plastics restrictions in Washington

Roman Taylor-Goodwin, age 9, busily fulfills to-go orders outside during the 31st annual Ramen Fest, hosted by the Spokane Buddhist Temple in Spokane's Perry District on Oct. 11, 2020.   (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

While it continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington’s restaurant industry is worried about legislation it fears could significantly increase the cost of takeout, which has become the primary – and for some, only – type of business.

Starting in January, restaurants would be limited in their ability to provide single-use plastic forks, spoons, knives or straws unless a customer asks for them. By mid-2023, the foam containers made of a type of plastic known as expanded polystyrene, such as the “clam shell” takeout boxes, would be banned.

Sen. Mona Das, a Kent Democrat and self-described “single-use plastics warrior,” sponsored the bill as a way to continue the state’s reduction in plastic waste in the environment.

“Washington is a leader in sustainability and particularly on plastic pollution and recycling,” Das said. “We should continue to protect the planet and consumers.”

Restaurant operators worry they might be forced to bear an unfair share of that effort.

“I think we all want to support waste and litter reduction and recycling,” said Derek Baziotis, Spokane chairman of the Washington Hospitality Association.

But replacements for those common items are more expensive and higher costs “are not a good thing in the restaurant industry right now,” he added.

The restrictions are part of a major new recycling bill on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk with dozens of others from the recently concluded legislative session and expected to be signed in the next week or so.

The bill would establish new levels of “post-consumer recycled” plastics for a wide range of packaging that include beverage containers, trash bags, cleaning products and personal care items. Low levels starting in the middle of this decade and ramp up to reach at least half the content by the 2030s.

It would set up an advisory committee on post-consumer plastic packaging, and put the Ecology Department in charge of enforcement of new restrictions. The agency would have the power to fine companies after repeated violations.

To cut down on plastic waste and encourage the use of recycled products, the bill would only allow a restaurant to provide single-use plastic utensils, straws, condiment packs or beverage cup lids after Jan. 1 if the customer requests. There are some exemptions for drive-through facilities, sports arenas and cups with hot beverages, as well as senior nutrition programs.

A restaurant could also put plastic lids and utensils in a bin, dispenser or other self-service container where customers could choose to pick them up.

One of the biggest wins in negotiations over the bill was getting sponsors to agree to a provision allowing the restaurant to provide those items if a customer requests, said Justin Davis, owner of Wolffy’s Hamburgers in Airway Heights.

“It’s not ideal,” Davis said. “We can still ask if they need these items.”

The bill also would prohibit the sale or use of the expanded styrene foam takeout containers starting on June 1, 2023. Six months later, the ban would be expanded to the use of that material in items like “packaging peanuts” used to cushion items in shipping.

As restaurants shifted to takeout because of pandemic restrictions on serving customers inside, the demand for takeout containers went up, and with it, the cost. But the cost of post-consumer recycled containers that restaurants will need to use in place of the foam containers is even higher.

A pack of 200 foam containers costs about $34, while the same number of recycled-content containers is $67, Davis said. Utensils, straws and lids made of recyclable materials are also more expensive than their plastic counterparts, he added.

“I get what they’re trying to do, but the cost we’re looking at is almost double,” Davis said.

While the bill did pass with bipartisan support, Republican leaders said Friday they have serious reservations about the new rules for restaurants.

“This is the wrong time to be putting additional restrictions on restaurants around the state,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said.

While the Washington Hospitality Association was officially neutral on the bill as it worked its way through the Legislature, it did support delaying restrictions on foam containers until mid-2023, said Katie Doyle, of the group’s state government affairs office.

“It’s tough to get your hands on and it is more expensive,” Doyle said. The added time will be used to find ways to shift to better products beyond polystyrene foam.

Many restaurants have also shifted their business model because of pandemic restrictions. A normal sit-down restaurant might have done about 5% of its business in takeout before COVID-19, Davis said. Now, even with the loosening of restrictions that allow for some in-house service, it may still do a third of its business in takeout.

Even setting the ban on foam containers until mid-2023 worries restaurateurs who aren’t sure how much of their business will recover when they can fully reopen.

Stimulus payments, which have helped bolster consumer spending at restaurants despite the rough economy, will run out, said Baziotis, who owns Bene’s Restaurant in Cheney. When pandemic restrictions lift at some as-yet unknown date, the demand for takeout may remain high, he added.

“I don’t know what post-pandemic restaurants are going to look like in Washington state,” he said.

If restaurants are still struggling and relying heavily on takeout at the end of this year, the 2022 Legislature could push some deadlines out further to avoid what Baziotis called “one more speed bump” on their road to recovery.