Unity of action needed in ban against plastic bags

February 10, 2013 

Thurston County’s solid waste program has studied the effects of single-use plastic bags for seven months. It has conducted citizen surveys, held community meetings, met with city councils and grocery retailers and researched the effects in other cities and states that have banned the bags.

All of that work culminated in a recommendation by the county’s 14-member solid waste advisory committee – made up of citizens, elected officials and waste-industry representatives – to implement a countywide ban on the use of the flimsy plastic bags.

It’s a worthy goal, because there is simply no good reason to continue using the plastic bags. They harm the environment and thwart recycling industry efforts, and we have a perfectly good alternative in reusable bags.

But the real work is only just beginning, because Thurston County consists of seven incorporated cities and towns, as well as several hundred square miles of unincorporated rural area.

Getting all of these separate jurisdictions to agree won’t be easy. Terri Thomas, who is leading the county’s exploration of a ban, says the goal is to have ordinances in place by January 2014, followed by a six-month education period leading to implementation in July 2014.

The City of Olympia has already expressed support for a ban on single-use plastic bags, but they are the only ones. Lacey and Tumwater are considering their position. Yelm is reportedly leaning against a ban, and the inclinations of Bucoda, Rainier and Tenino remain uncertain.

That raises questions about whether a countywide plan is achievable, or even necessary.

Seven other cities in Washington have enacted bans – Seattle, Port Townsend, Bellingham, Bainbridge Island, Issaquah and Edmonds – but no one has attempted a countywide ordinance in our state.

Olympia could proceed with a ban on its own, as the state’s other cities have done. But that’s not so easily accomplished here, because of the contiguous geography of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater.

We doubt many shoppers would abandon their favorite stores, and drive longer a distance, just to avoid using a reusable bag or paying a nickel for a paper one. But would Olympia’s City Council be willing to risk an uncertain consequence that might unfavorably affect its retailers?

A ban on single-use plastic bags will provide the greatest benefits to Thurston County if every jurisdiction adopts an identical ordinance. That provides consistency for consumers and a level playing field for retailers.

A partial South Sound ban can still work, however, if the three major cities and Thurston County agree on a common ordinance. Lacey and Tumwater should join the City of Olympia in supporting the ban and get this project moving.

Consumers have been trained to feel entitled to free shopping bags, but when it comes to single-use plastic bags, it’s a convenience that no longer makes sense.

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