Plastic bag ban not likely to cross Columbia River

No action expected despite frustrations with recycling

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It wasn’t exactly a surprise when the city of Portland officially banned single-use plastic bags in large grocery stores.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise when the city of Portland officially banned single-use plastic bags in large grocery stores.

The idea had been kicked around in discussions for more than a year before city commissioners approved the ban July 21 — and action occurred only after the Oregon Legislature couldn’t make a statewide ban happen. Portland’s ban takes effect Oct. 15.

Don’t expect the ubiquitous plastic bags to disappear in Vancouver anytime soon. They’re actually becoming more of a headache for the Clark County recycling program, said county waste reduction specialist Rob Guttridge.

“We try to really make it easy to recycle,” he said. “Unfortunately, that makes it easy to put things in the recycling that shouldn’t be there.”

The bags most often cause problems by gumming up the county’s sorting machines, Guttridge said, noting plastic film tends to wrap itself around the rollers used to separate items picked up from curbside recycling bins. Recyclable items such as cardboard, for example, are not acceptable if they’re wrapped in plastic, he said.

 The Portland ban targets grocery stores with gross annual sales of $2 million or more. Two of Clark County’s most prevalent grocers, Safeway and Fred Meyer, fall into that category. But representatives of both companies said they have no plans for a larger change outside Portland.

“What we were really hoping for was a statewide solution,” said Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill. “What we

really don’t want to see is a patchwork of laws.”

A handful of Northwest cities have now enacted some form of plastic bag ban. Bellingham approved its version last month. A ban in the Puget Sound city of Edmonds took effect last year.

Fred Meyer took matters into its own hands, eliminating plastic grocery bags at its 10 Portland stores about a year ago, before city leaders acted. Since then, Portland shoppers haven’t opted for cloth reusable bags in droves, Merrill said. Rather, they’ve switched to paper, driving up paper bag usage 50 to 60 percent, she said.

“That just shifts the problem from one disposable bag to another disposable,” Merrill said.

Portland’s ban didn’t include a 5-cent fee for paper bags, as previously proposed. Smaller plastic bags used for meat or produce are not included in the ban.

Merrill said Fred Meyer has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supplying extra paper bags — much costlier than plastic — in Portland. The company won’t expand the plastic ban on its own, she said, but will listen to its customers.

Safeway representative Dan Floyd offered a similar statement.

“I expect that many other local jurisdictions will consider plastic/paper bag ordinances,” Floyd wrote in an email. “We will, of course, comply with all state and local laws. As a company, we do not have plans to voluntarily remove plastic bags from our stores in Oregon and Southwest Washington.”

Fred Meyer operates seven Clark County stores; Safeway has 10 and one in Woodland.

There doesn’t appear to be any political movement for a citywide plastic bag ban in Vancouver, though city leaders have indicated they’d be willing to talk about the issue.

“I’m open for a discussion about it,” Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said. “I’m open to learning more about the opportunities and constraints on the plastic bag issue. If the council so desires, we could entertain a discussion to provide more information.”

Meanwhile, the county Environmental Services department continues to try to inform residents about proper plastic bag disposal, Guttridge said. The best bet is simply taking them back to the grocery store, he said.

“They can be recycled,” Guttridge said. “They need to be kept separately from the other materials.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.