It’s time to seriously address plastic bag issue

December 29, 2012 

The holidays once again find busy shoppers criss-crossing town, buying up all of those gifts, goodies and groceries that will likely be carried out of stores in plastic bags. But long after the holidays are over, all of those plastic bags — an estimated 90 million of them each year in Thurston County — will still be around.

Single-use shopping bags are the most commonly used consumer item and less than 5 percent get recycled. Valuable resources go into making the bags, which are used on average for 12 minutes. And they leave behind a lot of waste in our landfills, or worse yet, pollution in our environment. Plastic bags are not allowed in our curbside recycling program but, despite our best efforts to educate residents, many people put them in. These bags tangle in the sorting equipment, costing your local recycling program about $1,000 every day.

It’s clear that plastic bags are a big problem in our community, a problem that can only be tackled with community-based solutions. That’s why, on behalf of the Thurston County Solid Waste Advisory Committee, a team of county staff took to the streets this last summer to talk with residents, retailers, civic leaders and business leaders to get feedback on what they thought was needed to tackle the plastic bag problem.

Almost 3,800 residents gave us their opinions. Several options for addressing the plastic bag problem were suggested. They included: increased education, stores voluntarily giving up plastic bags or adding bags to curbside recycling. But only one option would achieve both a big reduction in the number of bags and a reduction in the costs of reducing or managing the waste – a ban on plastic bags in Thurston County communities.

A ban on plastic bags might seem drastic, the members of the Thurston County Solid Waste Advisory Committee believe the evidence presented in their 20-page report makes it clear that voluntary behaviors are just not working. An effective, yet cost-efficient, solution that will have real results is needed. Research and lessons learned from other jurisdictions show that education and more recycling containers do not make a significant impact.

A ban is a big step, but one that 74 percent of our survey respondents said they are in favor of – or at least willing to consider.

While this phase of the project is complete and the report written, the discussion about the plastic bag problem in our community has only just begun. In the coming months, staff representatives from the Thurston County Solid Waste Advisory Committee will be meeting with area city councils to talk about the report, the recommendations and to get feedback on what steps we can take to truly tackle the plastic bag problem. Staff will also brief the Thurston County Board of Commissioners on the report and the recommendations from city councils.

The meeting dates and times will be posted on the website listed below as they become available.

The final report, titled “Reducing Our Use: Plastic Shopping Bags,” is now available online, and you can read about the research done, the survey and the results, as well as recommendations that the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, have made. You can read the report at ThurstonSolidWaste. org/plastics and find links to other information, including survey results and comments; information on other plastic waste and the impact plastic has on our environment. You can also sign up to get email updates on this project and other Thurston County Solid Waste information.

We encourage you to get involved and stay engaged in our efforts to reduce plastic bag use in Thurston County. It is a big challenge, but it’s one we can tackle if we work together as a community.

Terri Thomas, a education and outreach specialist for Thurston County Solid Waste, may be reached at thomaste@co.thurston.wa.us.

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