Plastics Ordinance Progress Undermined By Fatal Flaws

In a lively City Council Study session last Tuesday (June 15th), weeks of work from councilmembers around the ‘Plastics’ Ordinance 2021-18 (with some help from the Chamber, Downtown Association, local businesses, and Zero Waste + recycling experts) came to a head, and a pair of controversial 3-3 tied votes.

Those votes concerned:

  1. Not allowing businesses to unilaterally offer utensils, lids or cups to customers in to-go orders, and
  2. Rejecting the gaining of more knowledge on these matters via forming a task force of councilmembers and informed representatives from the community.

The ties stemmed from Councilmember Christy Carr being absent from the meeting.

Aside from those two matters, it should be noted that much has been achieved in refining ordinance 2021-18 down from what was originally a massive net that would have regulated everything from restaurants, to bars, to coffee shops, to commercial kitchens, to food trucks, and even to kids lemonade stands). It should also be noted that ANY changes enacted this month will only come into effect on January 1, 2022, and so refinements could be made at any time before the end of the year…

Background: How Did We Get Here?

On May 18, Governor Inslee signed Senate Bill 5022 into law, with “Recycling and Waste and Litter Reduction” as it focus. The bill’s stipulations will supercede those of any ‘city, town, county, or municipal 39 corporation‘ that does not already have an ordinance around single-use food service products before it comes fully into effect on July 25 (and with regards to serviceware, it comes into effect on July 1).

So, if COBI wanted to have rules that went further than the state around those products, they would have to be passed before then (and thus now, at tonight (June 22nd)’s council meeting).

The original much, longer versions of this City ordinance were written before the final version of the state bill was fully known, and so a certain amount of projection was involved, so as to potentially cover more elements COBI feared might need to be addressed before July 1.

With so many complicated issues, and nuanced directives involved, council wisely decided to allow more time to work with the community and to specifically ‘listen to and work with businesses to implement the provisions of this ordinance in a collaborative fashion’ on as many clauses as possible, and to narrow down the focus of this rush ordinance to the bare minimum of action items.

Ordinance 2021-18: What is it about?

The stated goals of Ordinance 2021-18 are things that most people in our community can broadly get behind:

  1. Reducing/eliminating waste from food and drink packaging (plus single use toiletries in lodging establishments)
  2. Educating and encouraging people to bring their own re-usable cups, straws etc (something that was already happening pre-COVID)
  3. Incrementally improving the recyclability and compostability of the materials that take-out cups, plates, utensils are made of
  4. Encouraging more local recycling and composting facilities to avoid transporting waste wherever possible.

In a now-delayed full version of these efforts, more widely ranging rules, guidance, outreach and timelines will be provided. In the now-reduced version of the ordinance up for vote tonight, those goals are being pursued through 5 key matters, 4 of which are relatively agreed on by most interested parties, but #5 is another matter entirely, and one which threatens to derail the entire effort:

  1. That education about what can and cannot be recycled, composted or otherwise saved from the landfill should begin immediately in our community.
  2. That plastic utensils should no longer be out in bins, or thrown in bags without asking if they are needed.
  3. That Bainbridge will reduce the state’s criminal penalties for violations (ie possible jail time) to civic ones (fines, loss of business license).
  4. That take-out cups SHOULD be included in the regulations (after the plastics industry successfully got them removed from the state version).
  5. That local businesses should be FORBIDDEN from being able to offer lids, straws etc – the customer has to think to ask, and cannot be promoted, guided, or, you know, served by staff.

Forbidden: What does that mean in this case?

The state bill asks merely that customers be required to ‘affirm’ that they want a fork, spoon etc (which seems reasonable, and a good way to avoid people getting home from picking up food and then throwing away something plastic that they did not need in the first place), but some members of Council want to go further, and not allow businesses to even offer utensils in to go orders.

Many of you may well be thinking of obvious examples where that will not work, and so let us offer this scenario:

Staff: What can I get you today?
Customer: I’d like a soup please!
Staff: For here, or to go?
Customer: To go!
[customer and staff member stare at each, as staff cannot ask if customer would like a lid or a spoon, and instead has to wait and see if the customer guesses that they have to ask]…

Our best guess is that this will lead to customer complaint/questions like:
1. Why the heck didn’t you put a lid on a soup to go?
2. After I walked to the park to enjoy my lunch I opened my bag, and I had a napkin, but no spoon – what the heck were you thinking?

And that this leads to staff getting scolded at for something they are expressly forbidden from talking about, under pain of up to a $250 fine per day or even revocation of their business license.

Those might be the reactions of our own community members. Heaven help the visitors (averaging 120,000 annually) who come to this island and have no idea this ordinance is in place.

Effectively banning our local businesses from offering the containers, utensils or other equipment that a customer may require in order to consume the item they are purchasing upon pain of up to fines and more, seems to run counter to common courtesy, customer service and even the current wording of Ordinance 2021-18 itself, which still reflects the state wording in the preamble (WHEREAS… ‘as relates to enacting an ordinance to reduce pollution from single-use food service products by requiring affirmation that a customer wants single-use food service products from the customer of the food service business or other retail establishment’).

And that is before any consideration of the implications for freedom of speech begin.

A move to add more community feedback fails

In the aftermath of the 3-3 vote wherein Mayor Nassar, and Councilmembers Fantroy-Johnson and Pollock voted to ban those ‘unsolicited requests’ from businesses in addition to requiring ‘customer affirmation’ for to-go orders (and, having extended that to cups early in the ordinance, potentially making things even harder for customers to guess), Councilmember Deets suggested that more knowledge might help. He moved to form a task force comprising of councilmembers alongside knowledgable community businesspeople and environmental experts, so as to find a way that can better achieve our shared goals.

At vote, that too was a 3-3 tie (Councilmembers Deets, Schneider and Deputy Mayor Hytopoulos voting in favor, and Mayor Nassar, plus Councilmembers Fantroy-Johnson and Pollock voting against). With Councilmember Carr absent, the outcome of these motions now comes up for re-vote at tonight’s meeting.

How to provide YOUR feedback to council

Even though 3 members of council have voted not to hear community input via a task force, today is your day to let them know how you feel about Ordinance 2021-18, collecting community feedback, freedom of speech, or anything else on your mind.

  • WRITE to councilmembers, and specifically ask them to tell you why they voted the way they did, or how they intend to vote tonight and why. It is best to write to them individually and specifically ask for a reply letting you, their constituent,  know how and why they are voting.

Find each councilmember’s contact info at: https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/217/City-Council

Not sure how to word your letter? See a member-contributed version to use as inspiration at:

  • STAND UP at Public Comment tonight,  Tuesday June 22 at 6pm (from the comfort of you home) and tell them to their face (via zoom) what you think.

To speak, simply sign in to Zoom with your full name, and raise your hand at the call for public comment… Full instructions are at: https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/969426/Instructions_for_Providing_Public_Comment_at_Remote_Meetings__3_.pdf

Do know that the Chamber, and its board members have already submitted their own letters, and that Chamber President Stefan Goldby will be standing up to speak alongside you…

Further Reading:
Click to read COBI Ordinance 2021-18 in its current form
Click to read State Senate Bill 5022 in it’s final form


UPDATE: At the Tuesday June 22nd meeting, City Council responded to strong community feedback, changed course and voted 7-0 NO on forbidding businesses from being able to offer utensils and 7-0 YES on forming a task force on this issue in partnership with environmental experts and the business community.


More details to come…