Park County has a litter problem.
An increase in plastic bag use in the county has caused problems with the bags blowing away and littering areas around the Park County Landfill along WYO 120 South and even beyond. The issue has caught the attention of the Park County commissioners, but for now the county is at a bit of a stalemate as far as what to do about the problem.
In a windy environment such as Wyoming, plastic bags can pile up and scatter quickly. Although the landfill is surrounded by large hills in nearly every direction, they have not prevented bags from collecting on the west and east sides of WYO 120, dotting the hills like snowflakes.
Greg Palmersheim, county landfill manager, said after the county recently posted a notice announcing it would be hiring temporary litter-pickers at $11 to help clean up blowing trash and debris at the landfill site and surrounding areas, they are now walking back that opportunity due to legal constraints.
“You have to treat them like employees, you have to ensure that if you’re making $2 a bag, everyone’s picking up at least 2.5 bags so it meets the minimum wage requirements,” he said.
Traditionally, litter-picking is performed during the summer months and is a low-paying, temporary job.
Blowing in the wind
The plastic bag build-up problem has become elevated over the past year. Due to COVID-19 concerns, certain grocery stores like Blair’s Market in Powell and Albertsons in Cody are only bagging groceries for people who use the store’s plastic bags, providing less incentive for people to bring their own, reusable bags. People who perform self-checkout and or bag their own groceries have still been allowed to bring their own bags.
“To support the health and safety of our employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, Albertsons asks our customers using their own reusable bags to please bag their own groceries,” said Kathy Holland, an Albertsons representative.
Walmart nationally has not changed its bagging policy during the pandemic. Representatives from the organization did not respond to requests for comment.
For years, many have criticized big grocery stores for the amount of bags they use for customers’ groceries.
Palmersheim, who said solving the litter problem will take “a cooperative effort” with local groceries, met with managers from Albertsons and Walmart recently and said he “twisted their arms a little bit” on the topic of using fewer plastic bags.
“They recognize it’s an eyesore,” he said. “It’s something that communicates something about our community when people are driving in.”
The county also recently paid $60,000 for 10 portable litter screens that will be placed around the Park County Landfill, where crews will be adjusting their covering procedures in the future.
Commissioners Lee Livingston and Dossie Overfield said the county could consider a plastic bag ban in the future, although that is not on the table at this time. Many municipalities, counties and even states have enacted plastic bag bans, including the Town of Jackson.
“Everything is on the table,” Livingston said.
Jason Foulger, Blair’s store manager, said the business was following Federal Drug Administration guidance when enacting its current bagging policy, and will be returning to normal bagging procedures soon. There were no State of Wyoming health order restrictions made regarding this.
He also said Blair’s had increased sales at the store this year, which has inherently led to more bag usage, a trend likely shared across the entire grocery industry as fewer people have been dining out due to health-order restrictions.
Plastic bags are considered environmentally harmful because it takes many years for them to decompose, and they release harmful toxins when burned. However, certain stores like Albertsons recycle plastic bags for the public at no charge.
A University of Aveiro study released this month analyzing the effects of the pandemic contributing to plastic pollution said, “Safety concerns related to shopping in supermarkets during COVID-19 led to a preference of consumers and providers for fresh-food packaged in plastic containers, and for the use of single-use food packaging and plastic bags to carry groceries.”
Palmersheim is encouraging any nonprofit civic organizations interested in helping with the problem to contact him at (307) 527-1818 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. He said the county will supply bags and other materials necessary.
“We just can’t organize it ourselves ... and pay somebody else because of restrictions to governmental agencies,” he said.
Brian Edwards, Park County engineer, said the county is also looking into the possibility of having inmates from the Park County Detention Center perform litter pickup but he said this would involve paying overtime to Detention Center staff to supervise the workers, paying inmates themselves and into workers compensation.