Let the debate over plastic shopping bags begin.
A resolution being introduced at tonight’s meeting of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly proposes support for a bill by Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson, of Anchorage, to prevent retailers from providing customers with disposable plastic shopping bags.
House Bill 81, which happens to have a hearing this morning in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, includes a few exceptions. Violation would result in fines that escalate to $750 per incident.
Here’s the issue: Would this this bill, if it were to become law, do more than making us feel as if we are doing something to reduce waste and its impact on the environment? Would it actually reduce waste and thereby improve the environment in some way?
Or would it have the opposite effect, as retailers and consumers turn to alternatives such as paper bags and cloth bags? Those come with their own environmental problems, according to opponents of bag bans.
You can find numerous conflicting accounts of whether such bans do anything good for the environment.
The assembly resolution sponsored by Assemblyman Andrew Gray reads, in part, “Plastic bags are toxic, take hundreds of years to decompose or degrade, easily escape from consumers, trash containers, garbage trucks and landfills, and contaminate the state of Alaska’s natural environment where land mammals, fish and birds eat or become entangled with them.”
One of the chief arguments in favor of a ban is litter. The plastic bags do get loose and blow around, with many ending up in trees and bushes. They also find their way into the oceans, which have increasingly been the subject of reports about the extent of ocean-borne garbage.
There’s also the fact that they are made from a product — plastic — that arises from fossil fuel.
On the other side, there’s information showing that it takes more energy — meaning a larger carbon footprint — to produce paper bags, which are much thicker. Yes, they degrade, but is that enough to offset the increased environmental cost of producing them?
OK, so how about those reusable cotton bags? Croplands require the use of insecticides and pesticides, and cotton bags aren’t recyclable.
A statement from the American Progressive Bag Alliance opposing HB 81 reads, “Simply put, plastic bags require far fewer resources to produce, they’re domestically manufactured and the vast majority of Americans regularly reuse them, most often as trash can liners.
“Nationally, scientific litter surveys show plastic retail bags account for less than 1 to 2 percent of overall litter. With such a small share of litter and waste derived from bags, a bag ban in Alaska simply isn’t going to drive meaningful improvement in either category — even if bags disappeared entirely.”
No bag is safe from criticism.
The Wasilla City Council imposed a ban on plastic bags as of July 2018, becoming the first community in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to do so. A few other Alaska communities approved bans earlier.
The bags have for several years come under increasing attack. California in 2015 banned their use by large retailers, and several other states have varying degrees of efforts to curb their use.
Should Alaska join them in banning the disposable plastic bag? Our local and state elected officials should shop around for some convincing information either way before making a decision on House Bill 81.