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By Ian K. Kullgren February 26, 2011

Mark Hass says plastic bags made up 12 percent of debris collected during recent cleanup

The pitched battle over Oregon’s proposed plastic bag  ban -- and accompanying 5-cent charge on paper bags -- is ripe for misused and invented facts, figures and claims. Already, we’ve knocked down one assertion that the ban would install a tax on paper bags.

Well, during a Feb. 8 hearing, Beaverton Democrat Sen. Mark Hass -- one of the biggest cheerleaders for the ban -- made a few of his own assertions that had us doing double-takes. One of them was that "12 percent of the garbage collected in those SOLV cleanups, by volume, is plastic bags."

SOLV, for the uninitiated, is a statewide conservation nonprofit. In addition to other efforts, the group organizes river and beach cleanups throughout the year.

We went to SOLV’s website to see what we could dig up. We couldn’t find much in the way of overall numbers, but we did find a breakdown of the sort of trash the group’s volunteers had collected during their Fall Beach and Riverside Clean-up.

Among the detritus were cigarette filters, plastic bottles, caps, cans, food wrappers, rope, straws and -- yes -- plastic bags. All told, 5,851 pieces of litter were found at the group’s 19 beach and two river cleanup sites.

How much, then, did plastic bags account for? The breakdown didn’t give any sense of relative volume, though, so we could check only by percentage. By our math, 4 percent, given 245 bags were collected. That’s quite a ways away from Sen. Hass’ 12 percent figure.

Next, we called SOLV and spoke with Rachel Pecore, a program coordinator there, and we asked if there were any more-comprehensive numbers about the debris SOLV has found over the years -- a number that included more than just the previous fall’s cleanup. She said she wasn’t aware of any, but she cautioned us about putting too much stock in the composition breakdown on the group’s website.

As it turns out, some 7,000 volunteers participated in the fall cleanup, but only 232 of those volunteers actually participated in filling out data cards on the debris they collected. "Volunteers have an option of completing a data card of what they picked up," Pecore said. "It is not a scientifically rigorous process. They’re estimates."

Pecore then pointed us in the direction of the Ocean Conservancy, a far-reaching conservation group that keeps better numbers. In fact, she said, SOLV gets the data cards from the group and reports its findings back.

We looked at Ocean Conservancy’s 2010 study of marine debris, "Trash Travels." According to that report, about a half-million volunteers participated in a worldwide cleanup that covered 108 countries and 45 states. All told, volunteers reported some 10,240,000 pieces of debris, of which 1,126,774 piece were plastic bags -- roughly 11 percent.

As for Oregon specifically, the group found that of the 6,881 pieces of debris collected in the state, 890 bits were plastic bags. That’s about 13 percent.

We’d yet to find the 12 percent figure Hass had referred to at the hearing, so we gave his office a call. The senator told us a SOLV program coordinator had given him the 12 percent figure. He said he’d follow up in an e-mail, and, true to his word, he did.

Hass forwarded us -- along with a few other bits and pieces -- an e-mail he received from Diana Bartlett, a SOLV program coordinator. In the e-mail she notes that the Ocean Conservancy’s 2009 marine debris report shows that 12 percent of the trash collected by volunteers was made up of plastic bags. We checked the report and she’s right.

Hass also noted that the 2009 report offers a state-by-state breakdown that says cleaners found 13.4 percent of their sample in Oregon was plastic bags (172 of the 1,281 pieces collected).

Hass ended his e-mail with this: "I’m happy to defend anything I’ve said on this issue -- and take my lumps if it’s out of context or outdated."

So, are there any lumps to give? In the Feb. 8 committee hearing Hass said. "Twelve percent of the garbage collected in those SOLV cleanups, by volume, is plastic bags."

None of the sources gave a sense of relative volume. One discarded sofa (yes, SOLV volunteers found a brown plaid sofa on the beach one year) is more volume than 172 plastic bags.

And Hass wasn’t exactly right. He cited SOLV’s cleanups but the organization doesn’t gather reliable numbers. Ocean Conservancy, the group that actually produced the figure Hass used, did report that plastic bags made up 12 percent of its marine debris collection in 2008 and 11 percent in 2009. That percentage jumped to 13.4 percent in 2008 and 13 percent in 2009 when Oregon was considered alone, according to Ocean Conservancy reports.

It seems to us that Hass attributed his 12 percent figure to the wrong source. That said, the 12 percent figure seems to jibe with the general range the two most recent reports offer.

With that in mind, we rate this claim Mostly True.

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Mark Hass says plastic bags made up 12 percent of debris collected during recent cleanup

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