OLYMPIA, Washington, August 5, 2012 (ENS) - The 245,000 residents of Thurston County, Washington use about 90 million plastic shopping bags each year, according to the county's Solid Waste Division.
Located at the southern end of Puget Sound, with majestic Mount Rainier and the rugged Cascade Mountains nearby to the east, the Pacific Coast is an hour's drive to the west. The county seat is at Olympia, the state capital and the county's largest city.
The last thing Thurston County residents want is plastic bags blowing into trees, littering the streets and clogging up the county's waste collection and disposal system.
Plastic bags cannot be recycled in Thurston County's commingled curbside program because they tangle in equipment at the sorting facility. Some residents put bags in their recycling anyway, even though the county's outreach materials say not to. This creates an extra expense for recycling facilities of about $1,000 per day.
While Thurston County is not considering a plastic bag ban at this time, Solid Waste staffers are asking residents for ideas to help reduce plastic bag use, reduce the county's costs, and keep plastic bags out of the environment.
Over the past four months Solid Waste Division staffers have been leading a series of community conversations on how to address the problem.
"We're having meetings to get people together and see if we can find solutions that people can support," said Terri Thomas, an education and outreach specialist with the county's Solid Waste Division.
Solid Waste staff is working with the citizens, cities and retailers in Thurston County on educating residents about the problems these millions of plastic bags can create, and identifying possible solutions to help reduce their use.
"Thurston County is taking a lead on upcoming community dialogues," said Tumwater Councilmember Tom Oliva at a work session in May. "I've been concerned about each city dealing with this itself; it's a regional issue. Otherwise, people could cross city lines to go to another store," he told the "News Tribune."
Thomas has spoken with city councils in Olympia, Bucoda, Yelm, Rainier, Tumwater and Lacey about the statistics.
Plastic bags get used, on average, for 12 minutes but stay in the environment for a very long time, the county's educational materials point out. Many discarded bags eventually make their way to Puget Sound where they harm whales, dolphins, seals, turtles, and birds.
The Marine Research Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die each year because of plastic litter in the North Pacific Ocean.
The Solid Waste division wants Thurston County residents to know that these plastics do not mineralize in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces that can harm fish and other wildlife in two main ways - directly and indirectly.
Studies show that fish and other marine life eat plastic because it often looks like their food: plastic bags resemble jellyfish; bottle caps look like squid; plastic bits appear to be fish eggs. Plastics cause irritation or damage to the digestive system, and if plastics are kept in the gut, the animal feels full and may starve because it fails to eat.
Plastic debris indirectly impacts marine life by acting as a sponge. "It accumulates pollutants up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater," says the county. "It is still unclear whether these pollutants can seep from plastic debris into the organisms that happen to eat the debris. More research is needed to help better understand these areas."
To engage people in thinking about the issue, staffers from the Solid Waste Division have been surveying residents about their plastic bags at the community meetings, special events, and in front of local retail stores. In exchange for completing the survey, residents receive a free, reusable, recycled content shopping bag. The survey is also available on line at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Tcbagsurvey.
The Solid Waste Division has purchased copies of the documentary DVD "Bag It" and is arranging public screenings. In this video, everyman Jeb Berrier travels on a global tour to unravel the complexities of plastic use and abuse.
Reuse of plastic bags is an option, but few Thurston Country residents do so. According to Thurston County waste sort results, 9,182 tons of plastic film and bags were thrown in the trash in 2009 - up from 8,224 tons in 2004.
Some Olympia residents have repurposed the pesky plastics into sculptures, dolls or flower-shaped hats.
But for now, the best solution for most Thurston County residents is to carry reuseable bags when they go shopping. If they do accept single-use carry-out plastic bags they can recycle them in the recycle bins at grocery stores or by bringing them to the Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center in Lacey.
"A simple test to see whether a bag is recyclable is to see if you can easily poke your finger through the bag," the Solid Waste Division advises. "If so, it's good for recycling."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.
PHOTO: State Capitol, Olympia, Washington (Photo courtesy Washington State Dept. of Transportation)