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Residents, City of Kirkland seek solution to bouncy ball litter

David Lamb has collected around 60 bouncy balls that he has found littering his Kingsgate neighborhood. He discovered that an employee at a nearby car wash has also collected hundreds of the balls, which come from a pinball machine at a nearby Little Caesars Pizza.  - Carrie Wood/Kirkland Reporter
David Lamb has collected around 60 bouncy balls that he has found littering his Kingsgate neighborhood. He discovered that an employee at a nearby car wash has also collected hundreds of the balls, which come from a pinball machine at a nearby Little Caesars Pizza.
— image credit: Carrie Wood/Kirkland Reporter

More than one year ago, Kingsgate resident David Lamb began picking up trash along 124th Avenue N.E. while he walked his dog. He’d collect beer bottles, plastic - the usual - until he started noticed brightly colored, unusual, bouncy balls.

They would turn up in undesirable places, such as near a storm drain and in his curious dog Chance’s mouth.

At first Lamb threw them away, but this past September he started collecting them and asking people in the community if they knew the source of the litter. After speaking with his neighbor, he discovered the Little Caesars Pizza, near the SnoKing Hockey ice rink, has a pinball machine that people could play and win the bouncy balls. His neighbor’s children own some.

“These have an entertainment value of about one bounce,” said Lamb, who has found about 60 balls.

Lamb speculates children would get ahold of a ball, sometimes winning free cheesy bread if it had a picture on it, and bounce it, which would bounce into the adjacent parking lot.

“The kids are smart not to run into the street (to retrieve them),” he says.

As a result, citizens such as Lamb have found them around his community.

But Lamb wanted answers.

“It’s a silly thing but it’s a big thing and it’s solvable,” he said.

On one of his walks, Lamb spoke with David Wood who works at Kingsgate Carwash, which is located across from Little Caesars. Wood told Lamb he had been collecting them too. And he had 263.

“Kids bang the balls (onto the pavement) and they make it into the ivy,” said Wood, who has been collecting them for about one year.

Kingsgate Carwash is at a downward slope, so often balls roll toward the area.

As Lamb continued to investigate, he contacted the Evergreen Veterinary hospital up the street.

“The balls from the Little Caesars Pizza are certainly a problematic size and would make an ideal potential foreign body,” said veterinarian Benjamin McLaughlin.

Dogs often ingest any object they can physically swallow or break into pieces, McLaughlin says.

But whose job is it to clean city streets?

Street division manager John Hopfauf said sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, according to a Kirkland ordinance.

“The environment has always been important to me and these are just little balls of death,” said Lamb.

And with all things that roll, slopes tend to affect where they end up, such as in a storm drain. On a recent afternoon, Lamb walked along his street and used a knife to dislodge a ball stuck in the grate of a storm drain.

“We don’t want that stuff down the drains. It’s illegal but it doesn’t sound like it’s intentional,” said city stormwater and sewer division manager Bobbi Wallace.

Wallace said the storm drain vaults in the parking lot don’t have filters and when the balls fall into the drains, they simply sit there. The parking lots’ storm drains are private and undergo private cleanings at least once every five years, as required by the federal government. Wallace explained when the vacuum trucks do suck the debris out, it is taken to a landfill in Oregon by Waste Management.

It is doubtful these particular bouncy balls could get into large bodies of water and sit at the bottom of sediment, but Wallace said storm drains can empty out into nearby lakes and ponds.

Department of Ecology spokeswoman Kathy Davis said it is hard to know whether the bouncy balls could over time affect the water because manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals in children’s toys.

Additionally, chemicals empty out into the storm drains nearly every day and while it is unknown exactly how it affects people and pets, it is something many are accustomed to, she said.

Nevertheless, Wallace can see how it is an issue.

“Companies need to be thinking about their give-a-ways because it could have an environmental impact,” she said.

Dan Vaniterson, the lead of the city’s sewer and storm division, met with Lamb and confronted the Little Caesars business but came to no resolution. Wallace explained the Little Caesars manager told the pair they could not take the machine out, nor could they replace the prize with a different item.

When the Reporter contacted Jesse DeGroff, owner of the Little Caesars at 14312 124th Ave. N.E., he said he’d be happy to talk with Lamb and the city. DeGroff explained that when people play the pinball machine, they can win free “crazy bread” if they get a ball with a character’s picture on it.

“A lot of the time, the kids bounce the balls and they go all over the place,” Degroff said. “We patrol the parking lot and pick up the balls daily.”

DeGroff said he takes pride in cleaning up the area. He’s seen middle school and high school age children throw them, but adds it’s “very rare.”

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