Global Problem, Local Solution

By on May 16, 2018

Town Council could get serious about plastic bag ban

(Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Five trillion. That’s the number of single-use plastic bags people across the planet use and toss each year. In Jackson alone, grocers estimate residents and visitors go through at least five million bags annually. That happens to be their conservative estimate.

Plastic bag bans have been enacted in countries, cities and towns across the world. Jackson, though, has yet to act.

Former Town Councilor Greg Miles proposed a plastic bag ban in 2011. He remembered driving across Wyoming and seeing plastic bags caught in barbed wire fences, billowing in the wind. The image, and that of plastic bags piled on the streets of other countries where he traveled, compelled him to suggest a ban. At the time, Jackson “could have been a leader,” he said, but the ban failed to draw the council’s support.

Seven years later, the potential to ban all plastic bags and tack a 10 cent fee on paper bags has reemerged. Rising public awareness could augur a different outcome when the Town Council begins its first discussion during a May 21 workshop.

On Water, Land and in Your Stomach

Researchers say plastic bags—which have only been around for 50 years—will never fully decompose. Instead, they turn into smaller pieces of plastic.

These plastic particles are invading every level of the food chain.

Microplastics, about 0.4 inches in diameter, are in the fish people eat and the water they drink. A March study by Orb Media found microplastics in more than 90 percent of bottled water tested across 11 brands in nine countries.

Broken down and intact plastics have been found in marine life from mahi-mahi to whales. In February 2017, scientists discovered a dying whale off the coast of Norway that had ingested 30 plastic bags. A sperm whale that washed up on a Spanish beach in April had more than 60 pounds of plastic and other waste brimming from its stomach.

Plastic use is indeed sharply transforming the natural world. According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050.

Such notions alarmed people like Andrée Dean and Wyoming House candidate Michael Yin. In 2017, they launched a grassroots effort to place a plastic bag ban front and center of the Jackson Town Council. Since then, about 20 people have joined them—community organizers, conservationists, business owners and elected officials.

“I felt like this was such an easy initiative that could be done with great impacts,” Dean said. “We began having casual conversations with elected officials, people in town.” The more conversations they had, the more a ban seemed possible.

One of the first people Dean and Yin connected with was local conservationist and former head of the JH Conservation Alliance Paul Hansen.

When it comes to passing a local ordinance, Hansen said the matter is urgent: “The plastic industry in other states has been really aggressive on this and if we don’t get it done, we could see something happen in the state legislature.”

The kind of state legislation he fears would prohibit municipalities like Jackson from enacting a plastic bag ban.

Hansen is hopeful, though, that there will be more public and government support than in 2011. At the time, few public commenters spoke at that workshop. One of the ban’s most vociferous opponents was then-Mayor Mark Barron.

He worried banning plastic bags or charging a fee would “hurt the folks on the lowest rung of the economic ladder.” It was during a time, he said, when Jackson had lost hundreds of jobs and seen an increase in folks using social services like the Community Resource Center (now One 22).

Councilman Jim Stanford, then a journalist and activist, was a staunch supporter of the 2011 proposal. In fact, he was among the people who encouraged Miles to propose a ban. He doesn’t buy the economics argument. “I don’t believe those folks would be harmed. There are ways to structure it. Think of all the people who have extra bags they could donate.”

In addition to donations, the 10 cent fee added to paper bags would ultimately relieve low-income families. It would be used to purchase reusable bags for the community and also go towards the recycling program, education and outreach.

 

“How many other communities across the country and world have done this? We should not only get in step, we should show some leadership.”  – Councilor Jim Stanford

 

Today, a different economic argument has surfaced: the cost of recycling plastic bags in Teton County. Prices in the recycling market swung when the Chinese government enacted restrictions on what recyclables they will accept from the United States. “We were making $15 a ton on plastic bags, and now we are paying $40 a ton,” explained Heather Overholser, head of Teton County’s Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Division.

She said even though they collect a “fair amount” of plastic bags, most are not being recycled. Meanwhile, the overall number of plastic bags that are recycled worldwide is less than 1 percent.

“When you go to the landfill or our trash transfer station, most of the litter you will see is plastic,” Overholser said. “It is a huge source of litter even when it’s put into the trash.”

Plastics also make their way to bodies of water like Flat Creek. “We might be far from oceans but our waterways lead there,” she said.

Shifting Perceptions

Dean said much has changed since 2011 and the climate for a ban seems right. Since that time, “we have seen a lot of the results that have come out from other communities that have taken the initiative,” she said.

Such communities include similar resort towns like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, Colorado; states like California and soon New York. Seattle, Austin and Chicago have also banned plastic bags along with countries from the United Kingdom and Italy to France and Kenya.

Social media has helped raise awareness, too. “It has shown the visuals, I think public perception is changing,” Dean said.

Indeed, it is not just images of bloated whales with stomachs full of trash. People are seeing the stunning “plastic soups”—collections of plastic bags, bottles and food containers floating around in the Pacific.

One of these masses is now larger than the size of Texas.

The May 21 workshop will be the first of several steps. It could result in Town Council directing town’s staff and attorney to begin work on options for an ordinance. But a ban would not happen overnight.

Still, Stanford said it is time: “How many other communities across the country and world have done this? We should not only get in step, we should show some leadership.”

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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