-Sherry Devlin reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – An explosion of plastic trash blown out of Missoula’s landfill during recent cold fronts provoked calls for everything from a ban on single-use plastics to a city-led campaign to provide plastic recycling and individual efforts to dramatically reduce plastic use at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
After a Missoula Current story broke the news that thousands of plastic bags and other single-use items escaped the landfill during recent high winds, frustrated local residents voiced their concerns during the council’s weekly public comment period.
Council members said they, too, were concerned about the litter – and about Missoula’s lack of recycling options for plastic.
Republic Services, which owns the landfill, said the cleanup is underway and will be finished by this Friday. But general manager Glenda Bradshaw encouraged the city to consider a ban on single-use plastics in an interview with Missoula Current.
Local resident Ryan Pillsbury told council members that a significant number of volunteers were eager to help pick up the plastic – much of it plastic bags – that escaped the landfill when temperatures dropped so low that Republic Services crews couldn’t cover trash with dirt for a few days. (The ground was frozen solid.)
Thousands of plastic bags and other items are on the hillside above Interstate 90, while still more are in the median.
But Councilwoman Michelle Cares read a message from Bradshaw saying Republic Services has added cleanup crews both from its own ranks and from Opportunity Resources to take care of the cleanup this week.
In addition, Bradshaw said, the company needs permission from the Montana Department of Transportation to work in the interstate median.
It was simply too dangerous while the roads were icy and visibility was limited to put workers that close to the traffic, she said.
The larger issue, though, boils down to the use of plastic products and the lack of recycling for plastics, both members of the public and the council said.
Councilwoman Stacie Anderson encouraged individual action.
“Do small things,” she said. “It (plastic pollution) seems like a really big problem, but do what you can. Each of us has a responsibility to do what we can to make a contribution in small ways.”
Councilwoman Heidi West said plastic recycling is complicated by global issues. “Countries outside the United States no longer want to buy our trash,” she said. “We have to change what we consume.”
She encouraged residents to tour the Republic Services recycling plant to learn firsthand about the difficulty of recycling plastics from a city as small as Missoula.
Citizens led the call for reducing or eliminating the use of plastics.
On Facebook, Christina Ragsdale said: “We need to stop manufacturing and using plastic. It starts with consumers demanding it and companies changing the way they package – well, everything. The less we produce, the less we’ll have to reclaim or dispose of.”
Added Jaime Alexis Stathis: “That hillside is one of my favorite places on the planet. (Ok, not the landfill, but the ridge behind it.) This may be inviting attack, but I think it’s time for Montana to go the way of California and have a statewide ban on plastic bags. Montana is way too beautiful to be littered on like this, and people obviously can’t be trusted to make good choices for the environment.”
At Monday night’s meeting, Brandon Wasser was angry.
“In the 15 years I’ve lived in this valley, I’ve never seen so much trash blown out of the landfill, nor in the 25 years I’ve lived near here,” he said. “To me, this highlights a huge responsibility of the city to enact some sort of recycling plan – some sort of plan that will keep some, if not all, of that plastic from getting to the wind-blown landfill in the first place.”
With Missoula recently enacting its Zero Waste initiative, this is an opportune moment for the city to take the lead on reducing the use of plastics and recycling all plastic refuse, Wasser said.
If nothing else, the landfill’s litter should highlight “the terrible mess people are making of our planet,” he said. “The amount of garbage that people go through is horrendous.”
A group called Precious Plastics has an office in Missoula, he said, and is trying to build a plastic recycling facility here. But that group’s $5,000 crowdfunding effort failed to raise the needed money.
Why can’t the city build a plastic recycling plant? he asked.
“I would like to ask the council to make the recycling of plastic the first priority of its Zero Waste initiative,” Wasser said.