Thurston plastic bag ban survey reveals a mixed bag of results

Thurston County Commissioners received a briefing on a new plastic bag ban survey on Wednesday.
Thurston County Commissioners received a briefing on a new plastic bag ban survey on Wednesday. rboone@theolympian.com

Thurston County’s recently completed plastic bag ban survey of businesses indicates waste is down but costs are up for businesses the ban affects.

County officials told county commissioners Wednesday the ban has been effective in removing single-use, plastic bags from the county’s waste stream, but a majority of business owners and managers said their business expenses have gone up as a result.

The results will be shared with those jurisdictions that enacted the county’s bag ban ordinance, which has been in effect for two years. Those communities are Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and unincorported Thurston County. Smaller, incorporated towns in the county, such as Yelm, chose not to enact the ban.

Cunningham Environmental of Bainbridge Island conducted the survey for the county in May, which included an online component, inviting retail business owners to participate.

The consultant looked at the effectiveness of the ban; the effectiveness of the ordinance compared with other jurisdictions’ efforts to reduce single-use carryout bags; and the waste and litter reduction benefits of the ban.

Here’s some of what was learned:

▪ Two-hundred million plastic bags annually have been removed from the waste stream.

▪ Equipment at the county’s waste recovery center has benefited from the ban because the bags no longer gum up the machinery.

▪ 59 percent of the retail business respondents said their expenses have gone up as a result of the ban. It used to cost them 2 cents per bag to purchase plastic bags, but now they spend 11-14 cents per bag to purchase paper bags. The 5-cent charge for paper bags included in the ordinance did not cover the cost of the paper, they said.

The ordinance does not prevent them from passing on more of those costs to the consumer. The charge just can’t be less than 5 cents, according to the ordinance.

▪ The effectiveness of the ordinance compared with other communities with a similar ban was inconclusive, largely because those other communites haven’t conducted surveys.

As with a previous survey taken at the six-month mark of the ban, the survey response rate was low.

Using state Department of Revenue data, the county targeted 3,000 businesses with direct mail, asking them to participate in the online survey. Of that, they got 170 responses. The county then screened the responses, looking for businesses that had provided plastic bags before the ban. That reduced the response rate to 130. As a result, the survey has a margin of error of about 8 percent.

The survey did not cover county residents, and those results are something the Lacey City Council wants. The Lacey council has wrestled with the ban to the point of controversy. They recently drafted a letter that they planned to send to the county.

“Despite the lack of unanimity amongst Lacey council members on the issue of plastic bags, there was genuine interest by all council members to solicit a clear opinion from the public,” the draft letter reads.

The letter continues: “Unfortunately, a decision was made to hire a professional consultant to engage the retail community but to exclude the public on this topic. It is unclear from the records established by the Solid Waste Advisory Committee why this occurred. A public survey was originally included in the draft scope of work within the request for proposals for the bag ban evaluation report — then later removed.”

Commissioner Bud Blake asked staff whether the public had been involved in the survey; it was not, but it was involved in the first survey.

He also asked whether the county intended to survey the public, but he did not get a direct answer. Instead, as spelled out in the ordinance, staff said the county was to look at the financial impact of the ban at the two-year mark of the ban.

Another survey is set for 2018, Commissioner Sandra Romero said.