County commissioners should put an end to plastic bags

July 8, 2012 

Thurston County should join the growing number of cities and counties banning single-use plastic carry-out bags, but it would be even better if the Washington Legislature acted to avoid a crazy-quilt of bans across the state.

There are plenty of documented benefits and practically no downside to a ban, which has the support of the Northwest Grocery Association, an organization representing the state’s grocery retailers, wholesalers, suppliers and brokers.

Thurston County residents use an estimated 90 million of the flimsy plastic bags every year, most only once and for an average of about 12 minutes. Americans use 300 billion annually.

Fewer than 5 percent of the bags get recycled, the rest end up in landfills or fly away to line fences and trees and are eventually washed down rivers or streams into the ocean. Among the common trash items found on beaches, the bags rank second, contributing significantly to the massive patch of garbage swirling together in the Pacific Ocean, north of the Hawaiian Islands.

The Thurston County Solid Waste Advisory Committee is doing community outreach to citizens and city councils to determine how the South Sound feels about plastic bags, and to what extent people would be willing to support efforts to reduce their impact on the environment.

One of their efforts is an online poll – surveymonkey.com/s/ tcbagsurvey. Of the 1,200 who have taken the poll so far, 43 percent say they would support a ban on plastic bags, and 36 percent say they would not.

The Solid Waste Advisory Committee plans community meetings throughout the summer, and will compile its final report in November. After that, any further action will be up to the county commission.

It’s surprising that Olympia, a city with such a strong environmental constituency, has not yet banned the bags. Seattle’s ban went into effect at the beginning of the month, joining Bellingham, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Bainbridge Island.

From Alaska to North Carolina, and California to New York, some jurisdictions in most states have enacted plastic bag bans. These laws usually only prohibit the thin single-use bags at grocery stores, put a five-cent fee on paper bags and provide for public service campaigns to encourage reusable grocery bags.

More than 50 jurisdictions in California have banned the bags, including Los Angeles County. And Los Angeles itself recently became the largest city in the United States to outlaw them.

When Honolulu County approved a ban in May – that takes effect in January 2013 – Hawaii became the first state in the nation to outlaw the bags. Hawaiians know first-hand how many bits of plastic are making their way into the Pacific, soaking up toxins like sponges and entering our food chain through the marine life that consumes it.

It’s simply time to eliminate these harmful bags. We used to package fast food in Styrofoam boxes, because it was cheap and easy, or so we thought. Once consumers and businesses realized the true costs of the environmental cleanup, it was a painless transition back to paper containers. No one misses Styrofoam, certainly not our city sewers or the mid-ocean garbage gyres.

There is simply no good reason to continue using the plastic bags when there is a constructive alternative available: reusable bags. Grocery stores have been encouraging these for some time, often giving them away.

Until the infamous “paper or plastic” option goes away, too many well-intentioned shoppers will forget their reusable bags in their cars.

The Solid Waste Advisory Committee will likely find broad support for a bag ban. The county commission must then do the right thing, with the support of every city council, and pass an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags.

Besides, when did shoppers become entitled to free bags? It’s a convenience we’ve come to expect, but which our planet can no longer afford.

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