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May 14, 2021

Plastic Bag Ban on the Horizon for Anchorage?

One word: #PlasticBagBan

That’s what residents came to testify about at last night’s Anchorage Assembly meeting. Many communities in Alaska have already banned plastic bags including Wasilla, Palmer, Emmonak and several other rural villages. Now it’s Anchorage’s turn to decide.

My hunch? We’ll all be doing THIS fairly soon, and good.

In 1998 a voter initiative on the ballot to ban billboards read:

The bill states findings and intent that Alaska be forever free of billboards. It defines billboards as any signs or forms of outdoor advertising not allowed by law. The bill also repeals a law recently passed by the legislature which allows a new class of road signs outside of the right-of-way, visible from highways, off-site from where businesses are located. Those tourism directional signs have a standard format and size of 90 by 18 inches. The bill changes the penalty from a violation back to a misdemeanor for those who break the laws on outdoor advertising near state roads. SHOULD THIS AMENDMENT BE ADOPTED?

In a resounding vote to preserve the aesthetic of one of the most beautiful places on earth, the law passed 72-27 percent. Pretty sure that’s what they call a landslide. So it’s no surprise that passions run high when it comes to another despoiler of our beautiful views – the plastic bag.

The “plastic tumbleweeds,” as they were referred to, clog streams and creeks, get sucked down storm drains to the ocean, break down into microplastic particles finding their way into our fish and eventually into us. In a world with growing scientific awareness of these hazards, and in a locale which prides itself on its physical beauty, it seems like the plastic bag may be soon be facing its demise in Alaska’s largest city.

I haven’t been to an Anchorage Assembly meeting in quite some time. The Loussac Library seems to have undergone some aesthetic changes of its own, and there’s now a concession stand right across from the Assembly chambers. But some things never change. The old habit of putting the thing that everyone came for all the way at the end of the meeting and never actually seeing it through to completion is still in play. So, after 5 hours, the actual vote has yet to be taken. But public testimony, as always, was informative and occasionally entertaining.

I counted 7 no’s or indecipherable grumbling that I counted as a no because it wasn’t really a yes, and 22 yeses.

The Koch Brothers were kind enough to weigh in on the issue of whether Anchorage should ban or impose a fee on plastic bags.

There were a couple libertarians among the no’s, and even a representative from Americans for Prosperity (the primary advocacy group of the Koch brothers) who was everything you would expect, griping about how the role of government shouldn’t be to tell you how to go shopping. He even urged us (I’m not kidding) to think of all those poor folks who go shopping for groceries at Walmart and use plastic bags. Because, you know… Americans for Prosperity is all about making life easy for the poors. But it always amuses me that the libertarian argument usually hinges on “if people did the right thing” or “what people ought to do is…”  Well, yeah. A perfect world where we all cared about the environment and the cost to our water utilities, and voluntarily recycled our plastic bags and picked up trash because it’s nice to do, and policed the landfill to make sure everything is secure before a wind storm, would be really swell. NEXT!

But there was some really great testimony from actual scientists, and engineers, and people who work for utilities, and business owners, and recyclers. As always public testimony proved to be informative and entertaining. Here’s a summary of those who spoke, and whether they support or oppose the bag ban. I’ve put in bold those which amused me the most and which I found particularly informative.

No – People use them under the sink to put yucky stuff in. People use them for dog poop; people use them for dirty diapers; people put smelly stuff in there, and then tuck it in the trash. What will we do? What will happen to the yucky stuff under the sink? Maybe they blow off the top of the landfill but maybe they don’t. Has anyone even seen one of these things stuck in a tree? (Chorus of people in the audiencd: Yes!) Has anyone ever even seen one blowing down the road? (Yes!)

Yes – (Mother and adorable daughter) They found a pile of bear scat with blue plastic bag in it. The little girl told the story and then giggled and apologized for discussing scatological matters in front of the Assembly. They have also found them in trees. Need to find other alternatives.

Yes – The ban is of vital importance to wildlife. Ingestion of microplastics by animals is bad. Will be here for hundreds of years. Only 9% of plastic is successfully recycled. Change is hard but necessary.

Yes – There was a poll in Rabbit Creek taken on NextDoor which has a verified physical address policy. 71% of respondents supported tax or ban on bags. Also 43% also support a ban on straws and coffee cup lids. She found this striking in a conservative district, and it shows this issue doesn’t follow party lines. 200+ respondents. We have a problem w/ plastic consumption & need to deal with that.

Yes – Plastic-free Anchorage. See them in roadway. Contaminate environment. People will shift to tote bags, it’s just a change of habit. Good first step to reduce plastics in Anchorage.

Yes – By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Support the ban.

Yes – Microplastics are extremely abundant in the ocean. Bags break down to microplastics so we don’t see them. They hold on to toxins and cling to organisms eaten by salmon. Found in water, seafood, fertilizer. They are pervasive. Use the issue to build community.

Yes – Support as strongly as possible. It has become a movement. 11 communities in AK have passed something supporting this. Die-hard cloth bag carrier, and it’s really not very hard. They make great gifts.

No-ish – A lot of people didn’t know about the testimony. She asked a bunch of random people if they were more concerned about plastic bags or crime. Concerned about crime. When you were elected what was your purpose? The majority of your constituents would probably prefer you keep them safe than ban platic bags. What will you want to ban next? Use whatever is in your authority that you make safety as passionate an issue as this ban.

Yes – Anchorage has a litter problem. I bike a lot and I see what’s on the sides of the road. It’s inspired me to help clean up the city and pick up litter. I can say that I pick up a lot of plastic bags. As a transport engineer I see a lot of them in culverts where they drain into the ocean.

Yes – Commercial fisherman. Lower Yukon. They have banned plastic bags and people carry cloth bags on their 4-wheelers when they go shopping. They used to be everywhere. People were concerned because they are in touch with animals and fish bc that is their sustenance. And they are ugly too. We used to catch them in nets all the time. You’d find them in river banks and log jams. If those communities can do it, we can too.

Yes – Woman from Palmer. How things are playing out in the Valley. Palmer’s ban goes into effect January 1, but Wasilla’s went into effect July 1. It hasn’t been a problem. The Frontiersman covered change and said it’s gone smoothly. Radio ads, community councils, were helpful. Walmart is the only major retailer charging for the bags. 10 cents a bag. Manager says it’s going well. Selling reusable bags designed by local artists. Sold out and couldn’t keep them in stock. Value Vilage is selling 99 cent bags, or customers carry out without a bag. Urge to pass with a fee because major retailers just absorb cost and give them for free so we need to disincentivize people.

Yes – sell biodegradables. She sells biodegradable bags and brought samples. Integrity, strength, environmentally responsible. The bags are made of plant materials, break down, and can be composted. She’s been selling these bags for 10 years with rave reviews from businesses throughout Alaska. Many communities that have banned plastic have adopted these bags. Supports 10 cent bag fee which is cost of single biodegradable bag. Companies can sell these bags without a loss of revenue.

 

Yes – ban and fee. Youth member of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. Early this summer youth leaders thoroughly discussed a number of environmental topics to focus on, and this was our #1 issue. Irresponsible to waste these precious resources on single-use plastics. Other countries have taken steps to reduce – China, Botswana, Ireland.

Yes – Parks volunteer. Disheartening to see these bags in ponds and in the tops of trees. See neighborhood kids pulling them out. I’m excited that this may happen.

? – Mumbly guy from the Valley – This is not a ban, this is changing the thickness of the bags. They still have plastic bags at Walmart in Wasilla. The businesses write it off as an expense. This is not the way to go. Why are you changing things? The media and the press have painted an incorrect picture.

Yes – Overwhelming support. Thank you to Assembly & everyone here today who are committed to zero waste. Wrote an opinion pice for ADN. Take overall impending environmental doom and focus on one specific thing. One opportunity to the next – we have the power to change the path we’re on.

Yes – Recycling advocate. Our community has a commitment to stewardship. One thing that resonates is the community shift – it’s about consumption. Government should lead by example so businesses have materials that can be safely used and recycled. Urge you to reduce waste and not replace one with another.

Yes – Appaled by some of the pollution because of corporate America and the effects on our health and environment. It boils down to advocacy for life.

Yes – Appreciate efforts of the Assembly. Did first creek cleanup in 1984 and have done it for many years. Top 3 things that get pulled out of creeks are – styrofoam peanuts, cigarette butts, and plastic bags. They end up in our local waterways. We need to care for our waterways and fish.

No – There’s a lot more work to be done in Anchorage – lids, straws, bottles, zip lock bags. There are lots of solutions to these. Strongly feel that having ordinances is not the way to go, but talking to people and making them aware is a much better way. Just educate people. There will be opposition if you force people.

Yes – Reusable bags are part of recycling. He’s in the auction business and that’s recycling. Gave cloth bags to Assembly members. The idea of habit is really the answer. Put the seal of Anchorage on cloth bags and make it a thing – Keeping Anchorage Green.

Yes – Stopped by grocery store and the man in front of me had 12 items. Told clerk, double bag everything. Inspired by the work teen group has done. It reached many people. Encouraged to see we have a youth member of the Assembly.

No. Jeremy Price from Americans for Prosperity – I rise in opposition to proposal and any legislation that regulates the way we carry our groceries home! On an international level, Asian countries are the biggest polluters, not us. We don’t come close. They don’t have sufficient waste management systems in place. We all need to pick up trash on a volunteer level. We don’t need government mandates to tell us to do anything. If you don’t want to recycle your bags, use a reusable tote. There are bins in stores to recycle plastic bags. There hasn’t been enough outreach. It’s easier to shoplift with a tote. “Carbon footprints are proportional to the mass of an object” so increasing the thickness of the bag or having paper bags you’re going to make it worse. Let’s think of the poor folks tonight who buy their groceries at Walmart.

? – Retailers can keep proceeds of fees. If the goal is to reduce or eliminate pollution, what is the benefit of introducing a mechanism that punishes communities. If goal is to ban plastic, we should simply do that rather than imposing penalties. Money doesn’t go to improving waste management, it goes to the business itself.

No. Alternative proposition. Plastic bottles can be recycled into trex or other plastic materials so we should do the same thing with plastic bags and turn them into other things. Suggest that Municipality and retailers get together and make it more obvious to everybody that these plastic bags can be recycled.

Yes – Support ordinance in some form. Aesthetics in our community. As we know after a windstorm all the chain link fences are plastered and creeks and streams get loaded down with these little parachutes. Also threats to wildlife. Heard about free choice – one of our aspects is public education. Education has reached a plateau, and no longer works. Time for something else.

Yes – We have to start somewhere and it makes a point about where we are headed as a culture. Makes statement about lifestyle shift. It’s not that hard. If someone’s short-sighted decision impacts the quality of life of people who are making environmentally friendly decisions… those rights need to be protected as well. There is a health impact. Microplastics harm us and enter our food supply.

Yes – Former environmental engineer worked on landfills over the state. One of the things that was common was windblown plastic bags blowing across the tundra or in the forest. That’s a symbol of how we failed to do a good job of recycling the bags. We haven’t talked about the cost of this waste. The mass of each bag doesn’t amount to much, but it does represent an oversized component of the cost. Pound for pound we spend more to wrangle the bags off fences and roadways than any other material. Hundreds/thousands of hours annually are spent every year to manage that particular waste source. Bags get wrapped around pumps and propellers in water treatment which increases maintenance. They show up on screens in wastewater plants. Those and flushable wipes are difficult to deal with. Storm drain system sends that material to creeks and lakes. One of the principal objects that gets picked up in spring cleanup is plastic bags.

After public testimony they diverted to approve renewing licenses for various marijuana businesses which were due to expire soon. They all passed 10-1, the one being Amy Demboski from Eagle River who is not a fan of Alaska’s newest revenue stream, and apparently thinks that none of these businesses should get their license renewed because she doesn’t like them.

Tune in next week when I will endeavor to return to the Assembly Chambers on August 28 and cross my fingers that they’ll get through the big pile of amendments and discussion in time to vote on the issue.

 

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