Changes to food packaging rules may increase food costs

Jan 24, 2023

When I was younger, every day products came in glass jars – apple sauce, canned fruit and vegetables, even some brands of milk – because glass containers are reusable. Their use was discontinued in part because children began finding glass shards in their snacks, and so clean plastic packaging became king.

One item that was marketed in plastic was potatoes. As the daughter of a potato farmer, we didn’t buy potatoes in the store, but they were in perforated plastic bags in 5- and 10-pound sizes or in a bulk bin. The bags were sturdy enough to keep the potatoes from ripping or tearing the bag, but the perforations made it a single-use item.

The proposed rules in SB 5154 could make single-use packaging of fresh produce a thing of the past. While the goal of ridding the environment of excess waste is noble it should not be done in violation of federal rules or practicality.

There are times, certainly, when plastic bags are not the best option. They don’t need to be used for the purchase of produce that is being placed in one’s own shopping bag or in cases of double-wrapped items that are effectively plastic on plastic. However, there are beneficial uses for the containers, wrapping, and other plastic-based materials we use each day. Whether it is corralling potatoes or keeping meat from spoiling on the shelf, plastic has a place in our lives.

The bill would punish plastic container makers by taxing them for the use of their items and requiring ever-increasing amounts of post-consumer recycled materials to be added into the production mix. The tax would be used to create more recycling centers throughout the state. The tax would be imposed by a “producer registration organization” and enrollment in such an organization would be mandatory. The organization would be required to track production and use of their members’ products and report that data to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

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The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulations related to food packaging. According to their website, packaging must be “adequate for its intended use” including being washable or designated for single-use and unlikely to support the growth or transfer of bacteria. SB 5154 has the potential to be in violation of those rules as they require reusability or post-consumer recycled materials to be part of the packaging.

There is no mention of the cost that will be passed on to consumers by plastics manufacturers that are paying this production tax.

The cost to those who are food insecure, living at or below the median income of our state, or part of the working poor are the people who are forgotten in this quest for a better environment by the removal of plastics that don’t meet a “post-consumer recycled” measurement. When companies are assessed a tax, it is passed on to consumers. 

Forcing manufacturers to change their packaging production methods does not benefit households with existence concerns so much as it makes consumers who are secure in their wealth feel better about their purchases.

Washington state has the resources available to host and expand its recycling network without increasing the cost of food. Inflation in food prices has outpaced other parts of the economy, clocking in at 13 percent overall. For an average household, that equates to an additional $400 a month spent on food. For people struggling financially, $400 represents an enormous expense; one that should not be added to by an additional tax on food packaging.