Ask the Energy Desk: Are plastic bag bans better for the environment?

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Bans on plastic grocery bags have been cropping up across Alaska’s remote communities. Cordova’s ban went into effect last year.

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But so far, the larger cities in the state have yet to adopt one.

Penny Gage, a resident of Anchorage, has a different kind of skeleton in her closet.

“I have a large collection of plastic bags at home, and I feel very bad,” Gage said. “I have gotten out of the habit of bringing my fabric bags to the store. And we use them for trash bags or other uses. I find myself using them for everything.”

Gage used to live in Washington, D.C. So, she’s no stranger to a ban on single-use plastic bags.

She said Anchorage has some recycling options for plastic bags.

Still, she wonders if nixing it from the checkout line altogether could be better for the environment?

“Yeah, I’m curious. Does it really help if we get rid of plastic bags?”

Cordova’s plastic bag ordinance went into effect in October 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Eyak Preservation Council)

Around the state, the opinion on plastic bag bans — and its effectiveness — seems to differ just as much.

Homer’s City Council passed a plastic bag ban ordinance, only to have it overturned months later by a popular vote.

Fairbanks considered a tax on plastic bags, but there was community opposition.

“You have to decide in your community in your culture what’s the most important thing for you. In Cordova, it’s that we live and die by the ocean,” said Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager of the Eyak Preservation Council, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

Cordova has a population of about 2,500.

Stolarcyk said in the past, the community was using over a million plastic bags a year. That’s particularly troubling when you consider the town’s main economic driver: commercial fishing, she said. She points to studies on microplastics winding up in seafood as a reason to be concerned.

So, Stolarcyk set out to change that. Her organization gifted reusable bags to every household in Cordova. Within a few years they had enough support to rally around a ban.

“It’s better when it takes a long time because it doesn’t shock people either when it happens,” Stolarcyk said. “People need time to get used to the idea of change.”

One thing that didn’t change, though, is that grocery stores in Cordova still give out bags. But now, it’s biodegradable one’s.

Cordova’s plastic bag ban is similar to one passed in Bethel about seven years ago.

But according to Bethel’s landfill manager, David Stovner, bags are still flying around.

“Well, at the landfill, we got a lot of wind here. We’ve got fences but that doesn’t stop ’em all,” Stovner said. “We’ve got brush piles that catch a lot of the debris. But still, there’s a lot of it that winds up on the tundra.”

Jennie Romer, a lawyer who’s worked on plastic bag laws in California and New York, said plastic bag bans work best when there’s a fee involved.

In other words, if you forgot your reusable bag, you pay 5 to 10 cents for a paper one.

A similar ordinance in New York City recently failed to receive enough support.

Still, Romer thinks those types of laws are better for the environment.

“An example of it not being better for the environment is the allowance of biodegradable plastic bags,” Romer said.

Biodegradable bags are typically made from plant-based material or cornstarch, rather than petroleum. But the rate at which the breakdown happens depends on the temperature and moisture in the air.

A grocery store manager in Bethel I spoke with said paper bags are too heavy to be affordably shipped to the city, which is off the road system.

Romer thought the fee component could help that pencil out.

But what about the bigger Alaska cities with plastic bag recycling? Romer said unless that bag is squeaky clean:

“There aren’t really any successful curbside recycling programs for plastic bags. And so, there isn’t a way to get them to be made into other bags,” Romer said. “The majority of plastic bags end up in landfill.”

But, getting back to the original question, I asked Mary Fisher, the director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling, are plastic bag bans better for the environment?

“Probably … I guess plastic bags are not good for the environment, and neither is plastic anything or paper or aluminum cans or abandoned boats,” Fisher said. “You could ban everything, I guess, and it would be good for the environment. But us as humans, we’re not going to do that.”

I catch Penny Gage, our original question-asker, up to speed.

“Yeah, this is not a black-and-white issue. That’s for sure,” Gage said.

Gage said now that she’s more aware of the issue, she plans to use her fabric bags more.

“I actually want to put a sticky note in my car to remind me,” Gage said.

For now, what Alaskans carry their groceries in is still a personal choice.

With the exception of a few small communities, most cities in the state don’t want to tell people how to bring their groceries home.