Ocean of opportunity for reducing waste with new bills

Illustration by Cole Sandhofer

By Audra Anderson

Washington waters may soon be cleaner as two new bills proposing a statewide ban on plastic bags and straws were heard before the Washington Senate on Jan. 24.

The bills were introduced in the hopes of decreasing ocean pollution, according to the bill documents. SB 5323 introduces a ban on plastic bags, and SB 5077 introduces a ban on plastic straws.

Bellingham City Council member Terry Bornemann, who is serving his 19th year on the council, said he fully supports the bills. Bornemann was on the city council when Bellingham passed a law banning plastic bags in July 2011, he said.

“We heard all the naysayers at that point who said, ‘Oh we can’t do this, the stores can’t operate,’ and now no one even thinks about it. It works well,” Bornemann said. “I don’t see why there should be any difference if we ban the straws.”

Section one of SB 5323 details the environmental ramifications of single-use plastic bags. According to the bill, even if plastic bags are recycled, they can clog the recycling systems resulting in costly inefficiencies and missorted items.

Bornemann said it has become routine in Bellingham for people to carry their own bags. If people don’t like the fee for a paper bag, they can bring their own, he said.

Fourth-year history major Patrick Czichas thinks that the bans will be helpful, but if people really want to tackle the problem of sustainability, they have to look at the big companies that produce waste and pollution that may not be strictly regulated, he said

“We do what we can,” Czichas said. “We are fixing the 10 percent that we control, but [it’s] the 90 percent that we need to prioritize first since that is where the most damage is happening.”

Third-year Fairhaven metaphysics major Octavio Chacon said they work at a grocery store, so their dream is to one day transform stores into being zero-waste with bulk food sections.

Chacon said they fully support the movement to ban plastic straws and bags and that people don’t need all the plastic. Even if the two bans do not significantly reduce pollution, Chacon hopes the bans will inspire more waste-free movements, they said.

“If not with the one ban, it’ll be with the momentum of actively doing those sorts of things and getting [the ban] through,” Chacon said. “It could unlock the potential for way greater change.”  

If the bill banning plastic bags passes, Washington would be the second state, following California, to instill such a law, according to an article by the Seattle Times. The amount of plastic bag litter on California beaches has dropped around 4 percent since the bag ban went into place in 2016, the article said.

Post-baccalaureate elementary education student Celeste Siebenbaum said she is passionate about environmental sustainability, and supports the bans.

Siebenbaum said that since the bag ban in Bellingham, she has seen many people carrying their own bags. If they forget their reusable bags, they ask for boxes. Siebenbaum wants to see the straw ban next, she said.

“I don’t think straws are necessary, and they’re terrible for the environment,” Siebenbaum said. “You hear statistics about how much plastic is being found in the ocean, and then how much plastic is being found in the fish that we eat.”

One argument against the straw bans states they could pose problems for individuals with disabilities who may require straws to ingest food or drink.

According to a K5 News article published July 10, 2018 that featured interviews with people with cerebral palsy, effective alternatives to the flexible plastic straw can be hard to find and more difficult to use for people living with disabilities.

Bornemann, who said he has worked with people with disabilities for years, said he is familiar with a number of alternatives to plastic straws that accommodate those with disabilities such as aluminum straws, bent glass straws and paper straws. He believes that banning them would not inconvenience the community as long as proper alternatives are offered instead.

“It’s just grabbing at straws on that argument,” Bornemann said. “It always amazes me how many excuses we can find to avoid bringing change. … We’re wonderful at coming up with excuses on why not to do the right thing.”

Section two of SB 5077 states, “The department of health and the department of social and health services must consult with community health groups, advocates for persons with disabilities, and other stakeholders to determine how to address health care facilities and individuals with disabilities need for plastic straws.”

The bill also states that measures will be taken to ensure any unintended consequences of the straw ban are addressed.

Bornemann said although he isn’t aware of how many people support the new bills, he encountered a lot of support for the Bellingham bag ban in 2011. He said anything people can do to improve our environmental condition needs to be done.

“Just banning bags, just banning straws isn’t going to change the world, but it’s one tool that works with many others that can make a real difference,” Bornemann said.

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