Plastic shopping bag fee proposed

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2007

Juneau lawmakers, hoping to change people’s habits and point out the dangers of plastic trash, have sponsored a bill that would put a 15-cent fee on plastic shopping bags.

Money collected from the fee would help establish an Alaska litter and recycling fund that would be appropriated annually by the Legislature toward cleanup efforts.

Juneau Democrat and bill sponsor Sen. Kim Elton said the measure was about more than a few cents a bag.

“The real purpose isn’t the fee,” Elton said. “The real purpose is plastic bags and trying to reduce the use.”

“It is a way to spark kind of a cultural change here because there is a real issue with plastics,” he said.

Plastics pose a significant threat, particularly to marine life. It’s estimated that roughly 8 billion pounds of plastic bags end up as waste every year -- most often in landfills.

Plastic bags are not biodegradable. Instead, they “photo-degrade,” breaking into smaller and smaller toxic pieces that can contaminate soil and waterways, according to the companion bills HB230 and SB118.

“They are everywhere. They are flying in the landfills. They are flying out of there with the winds. They are in the oceans. Billions are made every year,” said Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, sponsor of the House bill.

The fee is modeled after a similar program put in place in Ireland, where the use of plastic bags decreased by 90 percent following the implementation of the tax.

“It is anticipated the Alaska experience will be similar to the Irish experience. If so, the state collection could raise up to $1.8 million annually,” the companion bills state.

Elton and Doll said the issue came to their attention after conversations with Juneau constituents, particularly the organization Turning the Tides.

“It is not the top priority in the Legislature of course, but we are trying to educate people about what happens,” said group organizer Dixie Belcher.

The lawmakers who sponsored the legislation said implementing a fee was more likely to get support than a total ban, which has happened in some locations such as San Francisco.

“People can choose to use a plastic bag, but they know there is a fee assessed against it,” Elton said.

Juneau Chamber of Commerce President Jim Becker said he worried the fee might be too cumbersome to be practical.

“It would be very disruptive (to businesses). All of a sudden you’ve got a tax on bags,” he said.

“(Fifteen cents) seems a little bit steep,” he said.

Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for Fred Meyer, agreed, but also said the retailer has not taken an official stance.

About one month ago, Fred Meyer began offering reusable bags in its stores for 99 cents apiece. Wine carriers (to replace cardboard) are also available, she said.

“They are hard to keep in stock,” she said.

Dave Ottoson, owner of Rainbow Foods, supports the fee, saying that 15 to 20 percent of his customers already bring in their own bags to tote home groceries and other products from the downtown Juneau store.

Neither Doll nor Elton think the legislation will have time to be passed this year.

“This is such a big paradigm change, it is going to take a little bit longer,” Elton said.

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