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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Problematic Plastics

Talk of ban on plastic grocery bags good start to vital environmental discussion

The Columbian
Published: December 17, 2018, 6:03am

We want to say one word to describe an issue for next year’s Legislature. Just one word. Are you listening?


OK, OK, the discussion might not be as comical as that famous scene from the movie “The Graduate,” but it will be an important one. Lawmakers in Washington — and Oregon — are likely to consider the banning of plastic grocery bags.

The need for such a discussion is becoming increasingly obvious. About 2 billion plastic grocery bags are used in Washington each year, and only 5 percent of those eventually end up in recycling bins at the stores. The rest contribute to a growing global environmental problem.

According to a 2015 study published in Science magazine, about 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste finds its way into the world’s oceans each year. Scientists predict that by 2050, ocean plastics will cumulatively outweigh marine life, and evidence of this can be found in garbage patches formed by circular currents. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, made mostly of plastics in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, covers an area about twice the size of Texas.

While that is the visible part of the problem, nearly all plastic waste breaks down into microplastics that are not biodegradable and sink to the bottom. From there they are ingested by marine animals and get into the food chain through seafood. Researchers in Europe found that most of the humans they studied have plastics in their stool samples; we’re guessing that is not healthy for the digestive system.

Grocery bags represent a small portion of plastic waste, but they are one way in which we can think globally and act locally. Because of that, a movement is arising among lawmakers to pursue a ban on single-use bags.

Logistically, this makes sense. Scattered pockets of municipalities have banned plastic grocery bags, and the Northwest Grocery Association reports that the bags are governed by 23 different policies throughout the state. The grocery industry largely supports legislation governing plastic bags, in part to create some uniformity that makes it easier for large chains. Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer stores, has said it will voluntarily remove plastic bags from all stores by 2025.

Environmentally, it is difficult to find an argument against a ban. Even if plastic bags do not land in the ocean or local watersheds, they frequently wind up along the roadside or someplace else they do not belong — when they aren’t being added to landfills.

And economically, a well-designed ban can work. One concern is that a tax on grocery bags — or nudging customers toward purchasing reusable cloth or nylon bags — would inordinately affect low-income residents. That will require some discussion, but the goal must be a reduction in the use of disposable, flimsy polyethylene.

Of course, whether or not plastic grocery bags are banned, all citizens should be more diligent about recycling plastics — including newspaper bags — to ensure they do not contribute to an environmental calamity. As Dune Ives of environmental group Lonely Whale said when Seattle recently banned plastic straws in restaurants: “It’s about pointing out how prevalent single-use plastics are in our lives, putting up a mirror to hold us accountable. We’ve all been asleep at the wheel.”

We’ve all been seduced by that single word — plastics. Now we need to be smarter about it.