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Washingtons Styrofoam ban goes into effect on Saturday

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(The Center Square) – That container of leftovers from your favorite restaurant may look different starting Saturday when the sale and distribution of expanded polystyrene, or EPS, products in or into Washington state is prohibited. Polystyrene foam is better known by the brand-name Styrofoam.

Heather Church is a waste reduction and recycling specialist with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

“Food service products generally means cups, bowls, plates, trays and clamshell containers made from polystyrene foam,” she explained. “These containers won’t be available in takeout but you also won’t see them in grocery stores.”

In 2021, state lawmakers approved the law banning the distribution of EPS containers deemed harmful to the environment.

“In Ecology’s 2022 litter study, it estimated that a million pieces of polystyrene cups and bowls and clamshell containers accumulated in Washington each year,” Church said. “So, with these products no longer available we’re hoping to see a reduction in that.”

The Washington Retail Association has a different perspective.

Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Mark Johnson spoke with The Center Square.

“We think this really takes away business choice, and it also takes away customer choice for limited benefit, and we think it’s not the right direction to have gone with,” Johnson said. “We just feel that this will cause problems down the road with packaging overall, not just polystyrene bans, but any other kind of packaging.”

He went on to say, “We’re concerned about the direction that the WRAP Act and other proposals have been heading.”

House Bill 2049, the Washington Recycling and Packaging Act, would change who pays for curbside recycling services through “extended producer responsibility programs.” That means companies supplying packaging and paper products would fund the statewide program, as opposed to residents.

The bill did not pass the Legislature this session.

Johnson said similar programs implemented in some other states have run into difficulties in terms of compliance.

“We think it would be beneficial to look at how the other four or five states are doing because they are struggling,” he explained. “Oregon, Colorado, Maine, and now Minnesota have the WRAP Acts, though they call it something else, and they are struggling, and I think we ought to see how it’s going to work out for them.”

Having different packaging requirements in each state is a major imposition for multi-state retailers, according to Johnson.

“This is a challenge,” Church conceded, “but we have been communicating with businesses for over a year now that the ban is coming and if establishments or institutions – because this applies also to schools, government entities – if there are back stocks of these polystyrene products, there are potentially a few options for them.”

Church said businesses and organizations that still have banned products can transfer them to out-of-state locations.

“Otherwise, we are encouraging them to safely dispose of them,” she said, “but you can’t recycle it in a curbside bin.

“It is a challenging situation and that’s why we’ve been in contact with businesses for over a year now to encourage them to use their stocks. It is a tricky situation,” said Church.

Patrons who notice a restaurant or store is still using EPS products are encouraged to let the Department of Ecology know.

“If they continue to see expanded polystyrene on store shelves, they should report it to us,” Church said.

The department’s initial response to violations will be with education and outreach efforts.

“But willful non-compliance will result in a fine of $250 and could go up to a $1,000 fine, but we’re very inclined to educate and assist,” Church noted.

Johnson remains unconvinced, noting the state hasn’t really considered the real costs of this new policy.

“Ultimately, the costs get passed on to the consumer, and that’s why things cost more and choice is less, and we say if you’re going to do something at this level, try it at a federal level, but don’t do this state by state approach which is so costly,” he said.

For more information, visit www.ecology.wa.gov/epsban.