As a teenager living in Kentucky, state Sen. Mona Das went to her father's office, where he worked in the aluminum industry. He held up a can, and proudly said that within 60 days it would be recycled into a new one.
Reusing plastic to make new containers has long been much tougher. A bill to make it easier, introduced by Das this session, has been passed by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign it into law.
State Senate Bill 5022 would require plastic containers for beverages, household cleaning products and personal care products sold in Washington state to contain up to 50% post-consumer-use recycled content by 2031, and also up the content of recycled material in plastic garbage bags.
The bill includes a detailed definition of producers who are responsible for meeting the standards, and Das is hoping it can serve as a model for other states to pass legislation to require greater use of recycled plastics.
"We have the technology. We just need the will to make this happen," said Das, a Democrat from Kent who was elected to the Legislature in 2019.
The bill also seeks to cut down on the use of plastic straws, utensils, condiment packages and cold-cup lids. It forbids food services to provide them as automatic add-ons to carry-out orders. Instead, they only can offer them on request, or put them out on a counter for self-serve.
And the bill will ban, by June 2024, the use of polystyrene foam (or Styrofoam) in Washington food service containers, as well as in packaging peanuts and coolers. This type of plastic often cannot be recycled in Washington commercial facilities because it may be fouled by food waste.
"We're trying to get the problematic stuff out of the system, and then fix the system that remains," said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, which was part of a coalition of environmental groups that worked on policy for the bill.
Senate Bill 5022 is part of a broader governmental struggle in the U.S. and elsewhere to reduce plastic pollution that in the 21st century has emerged as a global problem. Many plastic products are used only briefly, then discarded, and may linger in the environment for centuries. In the ocean, a dumping ground for massive amounts of plastics, these compounds break down into tiny particles ingested by sea life.
Some big corporations that market products in plastic containers already are pledging to up the amount of recycled materials, and the Washington state bill is intended to help make sure that actually happens, according to Das.
Recyclers have pushed for such standards to help improve markets after a tumultuous few years. A big shock came in 2017 as China announced sharp restrictions on imports of recycled materials by imposing tough new limits on the amounts of allowable food contamination.
Since then, recyclers in Washington and elsewhere have struggled to find profitable markets for many of the materials they collect. And state recyclers pushed Das and other legislators to broaden the scope of the bill's recycling content that in an earlier draft only set standards for beverage bottles.
"We think that increasing recycled content in products is the single biggest thing we can do to promote the recycling of plastics," said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association. "We need the plastics industry to buy back the stuff we collect."
Peter Keller, vice president of Republic Services, a major recycling and waste disposal company and an association member, called the Washington legislation "one of the first comprehensive bills to address demand for recycled materials through mandated minimum content."
The final version of the bill also gained the support of AMERIPEN, a trade group that includes manufacturers, some of whom have already pledged to use 25 to 30% recycled content in containers by 2025, according to Dan Felton, the group's executive director.
The bill's 50% recycled goal by 2031 is a "bit of a stretch" but not unreachable, Felton said.
Brad Boswell, executive director of the Washington Beverage Association, said that his group supported Senate Bill 5022. But his members think they could have trouble securing enough recycled plastic beverage bottles to meet the standards. That's because demand is strong for these recycled bottles, which can be ground up for use in clothing, carpets and other products. When that happens, they don't come back to beverage companies.
"This is a significant concern for us, and we have to improve our collection system," Boswell said.