ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – The Anchorage Assembly’s recent decision to start fining retailers who hand out single-use disposable plastic shopping bags with each purchase puts the city on a growing list of localities using these measures to reduce litter and help the environment.
The City of Lights’ bag ban – which starts March 1, 2019 – also brings up a long-standing debate over whether the results these policies produce are worth their unanticipated costs. These questions will likely surface again and again over the coming years as people start pressuring their elected officials to ban other single-use disposable plastic
items like straws, drink lids, and food containers.
During their Aug. 28 meeting, assembly members voted 9-2 in favor of an ordinance threatening fines of up to $500 for every time a retailer gave their customers a single-use disposable plastic shopping bag. Retailers could offer their customers alternative containers like a paper bags under the ban’s terms, but they’d have to charge 10 cents for each container with a maximum fee of 50 cents per transaction (Click here to read the meeting’s minutes.)
While charging a10-cent fee for paper bags may put Anchorage’s ban on the stricter side of these measures, this is in no way the first time a local government – particularly one in the western United States – has tried to reduce litter by banning plastic bags or charging a fee for their use.
The state of California started a similar program when its voters approved a 2016 referendum forcing large retail establishments to charge customers a 10-cent fee for every disposable plastic shopping bag they used. The District of Columbia has required businesses selling food or alcohol to charge 5-cent fee per bag since 2009. Several other localities have adopted a bag ban or a bag fee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including:
- Austin, Texas (ban),
- Boulder, Colorado (fee),
- Boston, Massachusetts (ban),
- Brownsville, Texas (fee),
- Chicago, Illinois (ban),
- Los Angeles (ban),
- Montgomery County, Maryland (fee),
- New York (fee),
- Portland, Maine (fee),
- San Francisco (ban), and
- Seattle (ban)
And the list doesn’t stop there according to a review of the agendas and minutes Waste Alert reviews for its clients in the municipal solid waste and recycling industry. Bend, Oregon, and Jackson, Wyoming, have discussed similar measures in the past six weeks alone. Local officials in these cities are trying to answer two big questions about bag bans or bag fees: 1) how much of an impact will these bans have on the amount of litter that ends up in our rivers and streams, and 2) will they be worth the cost?
Pros vs. cons
Bag ban supporters point to a handful of studies showing these policies are an effective tool when it comes to reducing the amount of plastic litter that could eventually pose a threat to fish, birds, and other wildlife. Those studies include:
- A 2007 paper published in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics that found Ireland’s 15-cent bag fee reduced their use by 90 percent five years after it was passed,
- A 2012 report from the City of San Jose’s Environmental Services Department that found its “Bring Your Own Bag” ordinance reduced bag litter by 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in rivers and streams, and 59 percent in city streets within its first year, and
- A 2016 study by the Economic and Social Research Council that found only 7 percent of shoppers in England took a plastic bag home after the country’s ban went into effect compared to the 25 percent of shoppers who took one home before it went into effect.
Meanwhile, bag ban opponents like NOVOLEX – a plastic bag manufacturer that runs the Bag the Ban website – point to the fact disposable plastic shopping bags make up less than 2 percent of a locality’s total waste stream. Thus, reducing their numbers would only have a negligible impact on the total amount of litter that ends up in rivers, streams, and neighborhoods.
NOVOLEX also raises concerns about how much time it might take reusable cloth shopping bags to break down in the landfill, how they could transfer bacteria or other food-borne illnesses if not cleaned properly, and the financial burden even a 5-cent per bag fee could have on someone who is living off a fixed income.
These concerns could be why 10 states – Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, and Wisconsin – seem to be bucking the trend by passing pre-emptive legislation banning their localities from banning plastic bags.
It could also be why only six of the Anchorage Assembly’s 11 members supported the amendment placing a 10-cent fee on paper bags.