GUEST COMMENTARY: Plastic bag ban increases waste

Following suit with larger cities in the Lower 48, the Anchorage Assembly passed a disposable grocery store bag ban for the Municipality of Anchorage, originally effective March 1, 2019.

The ban dictates retailers charge a 10-cent per bag fee for paper bags, up to a total of 50 cents per transaction. Plastic bags will no longer be available. Rather than put this proposition to a vote, the body passed the ordinance following a public hearing.

The Assembly’s unilateral decision has not been without reaction. As of last week, the ban was delayed to Sept. 15, 2019, due to protest from local businesses. Further, Anchorage resident David Nees is circulating a petition to repeal the bag ban; the petition must have 10,000 signatures by mid-January.

Aside from instituting what amounts to a regressive tax, and from forcing consumers to purchase reusable bags ahead of Sept. 15, the ban will likely not assist the Assembly with its purported goals — combatting climate change and environmental hazards.

Assembly member Christopher Constant described plastic bags as a “voluminous” “waste stream,” for which “we have an opportunity to break the cycle.”

Voluminous? As reported by National Geographic, plastic grocery store bags produce 70 percent fewer emissions, 80 percent less solid waste, 94 percent less waterborne waste, and consume 40 percent less energy than paper bag equivalents.

Per a 2007 study published by the Australian government on the environmental impact of disposable bags, paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags. Similar findings were also published in The Journal of Fiber Bioengineering and Informatics.

Phys Org reports that, due to the higher environmental impacts of paper bags and heavier reusable bags, a paper bag must be reused 43 times in order to have the same environmental impact as a standard supermarket plastic bag.

A cotton bag must be reused 7,100 times. These numbers only increase if a supermarket bag is reused as a trash bag or bin liner.

Aside from seemingly incorrectly choosing paper over plastic, the Assembly’s bag ban does not consider more complex waste streams in its policy. Consider this: in 2012, professors from the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University published a paper following San Francisco’s plastic bag ban.

The researchers documented a 46 percent increase in death due to foodborne illness, and a significant increase in emergency room visits due to E. Coli poisoning. The bacteria were traced back to reusable shopping bags; consumers were not washing their bags between grocery store visits.

If everyone in Anchorage begins washing reusable bags, shouldn’t the Assembly have accounted for the extra water, chemicals, heat, and electricity consumed per Anchorage resident for the increased laundry loads? What about the environmental, chemical, and health impacts of sanitizing the bags with single-use wipes, such as Clorox disinfecting wipes? The Assembly is silent on all of these matters.

The Assembly also assumes plastic bags go directly from the grocery store into the landfill. This is a questionable proposition. Following a plastic bag ban in Austin, Texas, in 2013, residents began purchasing heavier-grade plastic bags for use as garbage bags.

Perversely, these bags were less biodegradable than those which the local government opted to ban. Per NBC News, “Turns out that Austin’s residents were buying (and discarding) trash can liners now that they weren’t getting plastic bags for free.”

On a personal note, I was famous amongst friends for years for not owning a trash can. Rather, I hung grocery store bags from door handles in the bathrooms and kitchen. While visitors may have found me charmingly eccentric, I thought this only logical. Why spend extra money to purchase (and consume) other plastic trash bags?

The grocery store bag ban will merely drive consumption of other plastics, chemicals, water and heat. I realize the Anchorage Assembly feels good about its stance against climate change. But at the expense of Anchorage residents? That doesn’t feel good at all.

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Sarah Brown was born and raised in Fairbanks and is a graduate of West Valley High School. She received her bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of Business (University of Pennsylvania) and her master’s degree from the University of Oxford (England). She can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/02/2019 - 9:31am

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