Environment Washington
The Stranger
Robb Krehbiel

It’s April 2010. A gray whale dies in Puget Sound and washes up on Arroyo Beach in West Seattle. Scientists perform a necropsy and discover that inside this majestic creature’s stomach are 20 plastic bags.

Nothing we use for a few minutes should end up in the belly of a whale. It’s just wrong. It’s why we can’t forget this gray whale. And it’s why we need to ban plastic bags.

Puget Sound wildlife can choke, starve, get tangled up in or be poisoned by plastic bags. New research in the Sound shows just how widespread the problem is.

On Protection Island in the Straight of Juan de Fuca—an area set aside from humans so wildlife can be safe—researchers from the Port Townsend Marine Science Center discovered that more than 1 in 10 gulls are mistaking plastic for food, half of which is the thin plastic from bags. On Orcas Island, a volunteer beach cleanup collected over 10,000 pieces of plastic, including pieces of plastic bags.

Once plastic gets into the environment it doesn’t go away. That’s what is so insidious about it. It photo-degrades rather than biodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller pieces, lingering for hundreds of years.

These small pieces of plastic are known as micro-plastic. If you’re out on the Sound, you won’t necessarily see it, because it’s so small. But researchers at UW Tacoma are conducting cutting-edge research on micro-plastics to help us understand it better. And so far, the news isn’t good. They have found these tiny bits of plastic in every water sample they’ve taken in Puget Sound.

Making matters worse, these micro-plastics act as a toxic sponge absorbing DDT and PCBs. Once these toxins get in a species, they build up in the food chain. In the Sound, resident orcas all have PCB levels high enough to impair their reproductive and immune systems, and plastic pollution could be a pathway for these toxins.

To really see the threat plastic poses to wildlife, do a Google Image search for "plastic on Midway Island." Warning: You’ll see horrific pictures of albatross carcasses filled with plastic. These endangered birds live on one of the most remote landmasses in the world. And they are dying because of plastic. Adults all too often mistake plastic they find out in the Pacific for food and bring it back to their chicks. Over half of these chicks die from eating too much plastic.

We use over 2 billion of these bags in Washington each year. 100 billion in the U.S. And only about 6 percent of plastic bags get will ever be recycled. The rest end up in landfills or as litter, where they can easily blow into the Sound.

Fortunately, we can solve this problem. It’s not even that hard. Banning those flimsy plastic bags we get a grocery stores would make a big difference for our wildlife. Paper bags will still be available. And clearly, the most sustainable option is to BYOB. Obviously, lots of folks are already doing this.

Seattle is a national leader on issues like waste reduction, reducing toxic pollution, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we’re falling behind on something as easy as banning the bag. Countries like China, India, Kenya or Uganda are ahead of us. That’s right, they’ve all banned the bag. We’re not even leading on the West Coast. Edmonds, Bellingham and Portland have done it too. Seattle: We are behind the times.

We can do this Seattle. We should. And it’s time.