Time to RETHINK Plastic in Skagit County?

By Carol Sullivan (Your Skagit BYOBag Lady)

Think it’s time to RETHINK our personal and societal relationship to single-use consumer items?  Starting with, but not limited to, single-use plastic items?  Me too!

The easiest plastic habit to break? Using plastic straws!  Humans did without straws for eons, and we still possess the ability to drink beverages without one. That would prevent 500 million straws from being used daily in the US.  That’s like daily filling 125 school busses with laughing, giggling, jostling . . . straws.  Picture that next time you are tempted to use a straw.

Second is the ubiquitous single-use plastic bag given at checkout stands in enormous quantities each day in retail establishments large and small across the county, nation and world. It’s the number one consumer item in the world! 

But it’s easy to ditch. Often purchased items can be carried out without any bag at all.  And it’s easy to replace multiple flimsy “T-shirt” bags with reusable tote bags. The hard part? Remembering to bring them into the store!

Wait for the statewide ordinance? No!

With an average of 300 bags per American yearly, in Mount Vernon alone that means 10.5 million bags each year. About 36 million countywide. Only a small percentage of them ever make it back to the recycle bin (if you can locate it) at local grocery stores.

Also, the recycling industry is undergoing tremendous change and stress due to China’s policy of no longer accepting our contaminated recycling.  Recycling is at the bottom of the waste pyramid, while REFUSE is the first line of defense against the glut of single-use plastic clogging landfills, waterways, oceans and littering our landscapes.

That’s why while a BYOBag Ordinance is being considered at the state level, in the interim, Skagit cities should adopt local ordinances.  During the last legislative session ESSB 5323, Reusable Bag Bill, easily passed through the Senate, and was also passed through requisite House committees.  It was ready to be voted on, but was not brought up for a vote in the last days of the legislature.

It will be on the legislative agenda again in the 2020 session, but there is no assurance it will pass.  It was a “sure thing” last session. . . .  Even if passed, there will be a lengthy lag time between passage and when the legislation goes into effect. Think of another 10.5 million bags entering/leaving Mount Vernon in the year or more before the statewide ban is enacted.

Why city ordinances and not county? 

Three Washington Counties have BYOBag ordinances.  Thurston County adopted legislation in 2013, San Juan County in 2016, and just this past summer, Kitsap County joined that group.  There are now 35 jurisdictions with BYOBag ordinances.  Anacortes City Council adopted Ordinance #3053 on Nov. 4, and it will be effective May 4, 2020.  La Conner passed an ordinance in June, 2018.

Each of the three counties with ordinances adopted BYOBag legislation after individual cities in their county passed ordinances.  City of Bremerton and Kitsap County staff worked together to coordinate language of the separate ordinances.

Cities, being smaller and more flexible, can pass legislation that closely models the statewide bill, and by doing so, quickly get Mount Vernon – or Burlington or Sedro-Woolley – out of the plastic bag!  Zero Waste Washington has a model closely aligned with the proposed state bill with language tailored to towns and cities.

When I began the campaign for BYOBag ordinances, it was clear that cities, and not counties were leading the way.  I was also not willing to trust our three-person County Commission to make the decision.  If they failed to pass an ordinance, towns in Skagit would not be motivated to enact an ordinance on their own.

I also felt it might irritate city governments, who deal closely with their local businesses, by going “over their heads” to ask for a countywide ordinance. (Besides, I’d been to County Commission public hearings, and didn’t feel that Commissioners were able to listen to comments, let alone to act on requests from individual citizens or groups) I felt there would be more chance of success at the local level, with residents speaking to their own city councils.

That’s the background. But how does a BYOBag Ordinance work?

Besides banning distribution of thin “T-shirt” bags (which are really just the tip of the plastic iceberg) at the point of checkout, a BYOBag ordinance sends the message that we have a “single-use addiction”, and we need to make changes in other parts of our consumer habits as well as replacing the carryout bags. (But no time for that discussion here!).

What stays/what goes?

The only plastic “banned” are the thin “T-shirt” bags give at checkout.  All the rest stays. While I’m not thrilled to still be seeing produce bags, etc., I view it as a starting point. A BYOBag ordinance will raise awareness of our plastic addiction. See the attached photo for a look at what stays!

What replaces the T-shirt bag?

Either reusable thicker plastic or paper bags, made of a certain amount of recycled material, and able to carry a 22 lb. weight 175 feet for 125 times or more are supplied for a small fee. Anacortes will charge 10 cents, while the statewide ordinance has an 8 cent fee attached. To avoid the fee, simple BYOBag!  The retailer keeps the pass-through fee to offset the higher costs of either paper or plastic replacement bags.

Who/what is exempt?

 Persons receiving government food assistance (SNAP, WIC) are not charged the fee for replacement bags. Food banks are not required to participate in the ban, and bags used for safety/sanitary purposes by restaurants are also allowed.  All retailers have a grace period to use up bags in storage.  There is typically no compliance officer needed to enforce the ordinance.

How can you help get this “low hanging fruit” on your city’s council agenda? 

By emailing/writing/calling your city’s council members and mayor asking them to “get (town)  OUT of the Plastic Bag”.  With a model ordinance that will keep them in step with proposed statewide legislation, there is not an excessive amount of staff time needed to get an ordinance up for a council vote.  Let them know! 

A BYOBag ordinance is a small and easy step that can make a big difference.

Isn’t it time to get Skagit towns OUT of the plastic bag?

Carol Sullivan, self described “Skagit BYOBag Lady, is a former teacher who’s lived in Skagit County since 1999.  She’s working for a cleaner, healthier planet for her 10 grandkids and 2 greatgrands.

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