It’s been three weeks since plastic bags were banned as containers for food and goods at many sites in Thurston County.
And while some businesses were braced for a backlash from customers, others were surprised at the ease of the transition.
“As I bought groceries at Safeway yesterday and listened to the conversations about the bag ban, there was some grumbling, but most folks are taking it in stride,” said Kara Steward, an Ecology Waste 2 Resources employee and a member of the Product Stewardship Stakeholders Group for the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Thurston County residents use an estimated 90 million plastic bags a year, according to Thurston County Solid Waste.
An Olympia city staff report noted that, besides this fact, plastic bags are the most common consumer product in the US, with the average resident using 350-500 bags per year. Each bag on average is used for only 12 minutes, and only 5 to 8 percent of single-use plastic are recycled annually.
When the ban was initially proposed, said Thurston County waste reduction supervisor Terry Thomas, most businesses were supportive of it, as it’s happened elsewhere without much disruption.
“Some thought it might cost them more money, but in reality it can save them money,” she said.
One interesting concern was that shops said customers could fill reusable bags without notice and then walk out the door.
“But honestly, anyone can do that if they want — backpack, stroller, overcoat, reusable bag — regardless if there is a ban or not where they shop,” she said. “If people want to steal, they find a way.”
Tumwater, which adopted the ban before sister cities Olympia and Lacey, is right on pace with the rest of the country when it comes to green trends, said Mayor Pete Kmet. He added that the ban is definitely the right choice for local business.
And at the Northwest Grocery Association, spokeswoman Holly Chisa said that businesses are in support of the ban because it’s the only thing that’s found success when it comes to reducing plastic and the litter it causes.
“We’ve tried signs, we’ve tried recycle bins, we’ve tried notes … (but) all over the country and throughout the state, this is the ordinance that works,” she said.
The South Sound’s LeMay, the top recycling company in Thurston County, halted its plastic bag recycling services last October because the market no longer has demand.
As for the company’s take on the ban, recycling coordinator Emmett Brown said, “We are behind this ordinance 100 percent.”
Across the board, most retailers, restaurants and other sites using plastic bags in some way have been supportive of the action, according to Thomas.
People that were opposed were generally in three camps, she added.
“Some didn’t want the government intervention, but with 90 million bags being used each year in Thurston and the effects on our litter and recycling systems, we needed to do something,” she said. “Then, there are the folks that did not want to pay the paper fee, which can be avoided by bringing reusables, and is the big goal. Finally, some insisted they use all their plastic bags, especially for kitchen trash can liners, but produce bags, which aren’t banned, also work really well.”
Local grocers so far are taking the approach that the ban is no big change.
Especially not for Trader Joe’s, which never even used plastic bags as an option.
However, the ordinance has had a positive effect on that chain as well, as in the past three weeks the Olympia site alone is using 50 percent fewer bags on the average day because people are remembering to bring their own sacks.
Other Thurston County businesses are benefiting from lower bag use as well, thanks to a new minimum 5-cent charge on each paper bag. That’s in place to help stores recoup the slightly higher cost of going back from plastic to paper, with that change going directly back to each site.
Thurston County resident Mary Wilkinson recounted a recent experience at Target in Lacey. Two customers hadn’t brought bags for their purchases and didn’t want to spend 5 cents each for some paper bags.
“One of them said that they have reusable bags at home but they never remember them. I held my tongue and didn’t say, ‘Now, you will soon start remembering them, won’t you?’ ” she laughed. “But I had my reusable bags. I told the checker that I like the new bag rule.”