The Great Pacific Gyre has a romantic ring to it. ‘Gyre’ is one of those seldom-heard words that makes most of us pause and–in my youth–reach for a dictionary. Nowadays I simply Google it. To save you the trouble, I’ll tell you I’m referencing Dictionary.com’s third meaning:
3. Oceanography: a ringlike system of ocean currents rotating clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Great Pacific Gyre circulates in the northern latitudes of the Pacific Ocean, and has in its center an area with another, less romantic name: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This name is strictly utilitarian; describing the large area abundant with the flotsam of civilization, mostly plastic. The Patch covers an area around double the size of Texas. Besides being ugly, it is also an environmental nightmare. The plastic bags end up drifting off to the Patch after our uses for grocery carrying or sundry other utilities. Out of sight, out of mind.
It turns out, if a tree falls in the forest, it still makes a sound. And plastic bags out of sight still have an impact on our environment. The bags, and other pieces of plastic that get drawn into the Gyre, end up mimicking natural foods of Pacific denizens such as the great turtles. To the turtles, the plastic bears a strong resemblance to jellyfish, a preferred food choice. Eating too much plastic can be toxic for turtles, for whales, for dolphins, and other creatures of the Pacific. Too frequently, it is.
But this seems a worry far removed from Bellingham. And even if we cared, what could we do? Turns out, quite a bit. Two local women, Brooks Anderson and Jill MacIntyre Witt, decided this issue needed action. Being Bellingham–where everyone feels empowered to take action–they researched the issue, and then enlisted support from Bellingham Councilmember Seth Fleetwood. The trio looked at what had worked elsewhere, and what had not. They noted that a Seattle ordinance that brought funds to the city drew lots of opposition, who characterized the ordinance as a money grab. They found a better way than Seattle’s bureaucratic, government-centric approach. Their organization–Bag It Bellingham–proposed instead that bags simply be banned, and that paper bags come with a nickel charge to provide gentle encouragement to shoppers to bring reusable bags with them.
Early on, some on the Council and in the community voiced skepticism. Just another feel-good, Big Brother intervention. By the time Fleetwood introduced MacIntyre Witt and Anderson’s ordinance, though, Bellingham’s largest grocery stores voiced their support for the measure. At the City’s public comment period, supporters outnubered opponents five or ten to one. And the Council and Mayor gushed their praise of the idea, and it was adopted 7-0.
But the story doesn’t end there. Now Seattle is revisiting the bag ban idea, and explicitly looking to the leadership shown by Bellingham, and the approach identified by MacIntyre Witt and Anderson, to take a second bite at the apple. The Washington State Legislature is similarly looking at a statewide approach, with encouragement from retailers. The issue is getting an ever-greater amount of attention; in no small part because of the success of a couple women in Bellingham.
It started with a couple of women asking, “Why can’t we address the problem of plastic bags in Bellingham?” Being Bellingham, they could not find an answer that was ‘No’.