The plastic problem: Commissioners mull how to address blowing trash

Greg Palmersheim recently watched a load of trash being dumped at the Cody landfill, with cellphone camera at the ready. As the household garbage was unloaded, Palmersheim said his phone captured “just this whirlwind of white material,” primarily made up of plastic bags.

“It just turns into this billowing cloud of debris,” the Park County landfill manager said, “… that goes from our site and all the way towards Sage Creek.”

Particularly in the winter months, people driving into Cody from the south can quickly spot the problem, with freshly escaped bags clinging to sagebrush along Wyo. Highway 120.

“We’ve got folks rolling into town and that’s their, ‘Welcome to Cody, Welcome to Park County’ visual,” Park County Commission Chairman Lee Livingston said at a March 2 meeting.

But more than that, the blowing trash is becoming increasingly an expensive problem for the county landfill, which has commissioners thinking of ways to cut down on the blowing plastic film.

“We’re trying, as a community, to come together and address what has been brought to us … as a major issue,” Livingston said.

Although he specifically said commissioners are not setting out to ban single-use plastic bags, the general concept was discussed at length during the meeting, which included representatives from two of Cody’s major retailers. Other ideas included community partnerships to clean up trash or joining a multi-national effort to go “Beyond the Bag.”

Landfill officials caution that it’s not just bags that are the issue. Any kind of light plastic — from wrappers to sandwich bags to packaging — can soar in Park County’s stiff winds.

Palmersheim told the group that “there’s no one approach that’s going to be the sole, fix-all answer to the problem. It’s going to be a multi-faceted, multi-level approach.”

For instance, landfill managers have been working to better control the areas where trash is dumped and they’ve added a new set of portable, plastic-catching litter fences (at a cost of $56,000). That’s in addition to numerous screens and fences already in place at the Cody site.

The litter collection crew has also been expanded. Between April and October last year, three pickers filled up 843 bags with plastic debris around the Cody landfill, with each bag holding 60 gallons of material. Paying those workers cost the county about $20,000 last year, Palmersheim said, but it’s going to be a bigger bill this year. For one thing, the seasonal workers were brought on board earlier — in February — as the blowing trash became a particular eyesore in a relatively snow-free winter. There’s also now a full crew of six.

“We get a lot done with that amount of people,” Park County Landfill Office Manager Sandie Morris said in a Wednesday interview.

In a separate interview, Park County Engineer Brian Edwards called the debris cleanup “a constant battle.”

“The bags are a large portion of the waste stream problem,” Edwards said. “When the wind gets to whipping through, it almost doesn’t matter what kind of fence you have there. They just take off.”

It’s not unique to the Cody landfill, either. Look down an alley, along a fence line or up a tree, and you’re likely to spot some plastic film flapping in the breeze.

That’s all part of the reason why commissioners want to find a way to reduce the amount of plastic bags being circulated. At the March 2 meeting, former Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall suggested the board lobby the Cody City Council to tax or regulate single-use bags.

“There’d be a lot of pushback here,” Hall conceded, “because, you know, we’re a conservative county and don’t want the government telling us what to do.”

However, he called it a worthwhile effort.

“It is a micro-problem for Cody and western Park County, but it’s a macro problem for the planet,” Hall said.

Based on his research, he suggested that requiring stores to charge between a nickel and a quarter per bag would have the same effect as a ban on lightweight bags, but “you don’t have the Big Brother telling you what to do.”


In the stores

John Dickson, the manager of the Cody Walmart, and Craig Doney of the Cody Albertsons both said their stores could do away with single-use plastic bags. The Albertsons store in Jackson, for example, has already had to do so because of an ordinance passed by the town government, and Walmart has had to go without them in much of Mexico — and the corporate giant is testing bag-free operations in Vermont.

“I think it’s coming for all of us eventually,” Dickson said, “but what we do and how we do it … will be very, very important.”

Both he and Doney warned that a change would initially bring added costs and inconvenience to customers.

“From the customer standpoint, it will be a very, very big challenge to immediately do it,” Dickson said.

Added Doney, “We just want to do what’s right for our customers.”

Both managers mentioned that their stores have dramatically reduced the amount of garbage they produce in recent years, thanks to increased recycling.

Grocers and retailers have also been encouraging reusable bags for years, but that effort went by the wayside amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Due to concerns that the novel coronavirus could be spread from surfaces, many stores temporarily banned reusable bags.

“I think just getting the information out would help a little bit — you know, people can go back to using the reusable bags,” said Commissioner Scott Mangold.

A couple attendees noted some irony in the fact that plastic bags were once considered to be a greener alternative to paper bags (which naturally degrade and generally do not become a little problem).

“I remember when plastic came out … it was like to kind of help save the environment,” Doney said.

Added Morris, “We were saving the world.”

Amid the pandemic, the manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Cody Field Office, Cade Powell, wound up answering the office’s phones — and he fielded several calls about the plastic bags blowing east of the Cody landfill onto BLM property.

One upset caller suggested that Powell send BLM law enforcement officers after the county officials for littering, but quite a few others, he said, offered to help clean up the eyesore.

“I think the community support is there,” he said. “If we can figure out a way to alleviate a lot of it, then I think there’s a way we can move forward and help.”

No decisions were made at last month’s meeting, which Livingston described as “just a conversation starter.” 

County officials have talked about donating to volunteer groups if they’d help pick up plastics near the site, but there doesn’t appear to be an easy, legal way to do that; inmate work crews have also been discussed, but that would require overtime for the jail.

However, a group of up to 50 students from the Cody Middle School recently offered to help clean up trash later this month. Morris called that offer “fantastic.”

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