Wasilla city council votes to ban plastic bags, effective July 1

The Wasilla City Council voted Monday night to ban single-use plastic bags in the city.

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It’s the first such ban for a community in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where a larger effort to tax plastic bags borough-wide is also underway.

When Wasilla’s bag ban goes into effect July 1, stores will be prohibited from providing those thin, disposable plastic bags commonly used for groceries, retail items or takeout food.

Unless the ban is rescinded, as happened in Homer, Wasilla will join Bethel, Cordova and Hooper Bay as Alaska communities that have outlawed plastic bags.

Wasilla Mayor Burt Cottle introduced the ordinance last year, and after two public hearings, a town hall and public testimony that mostly favored the ban, the council passed it five to one.

Councilman Tim Burney was the lone vote against the ban.

“At the end of the day, the only thing I could conclude was this isn’t the government’s role,” Burney said.

Burney said he personally tries to avoid using plastic bags as much as possible. But the way he sees it, that’s his choice, he said. If someone wants the option of using the bags, that’s an issue of personal freedom, however small, Burney said.

The government shouldn’t be dictating what sort of relationship customers have with the stores they shop at, and vice versa, Burney said. It’s a slippery slope, sets a bad precedent and causes people to think government intervention will always be the answer to societal problems, he said.

“To me, it’s just another nip at our freedoms and another nip at government limiting our choices. If I want to shop at a store that has plastic bags, I should have the right to do so. So I don’t think the government should be involved with getting in the middle of that,” Burney said. “These little bites out of our liberties turn into a lot of little bites, which turns into a big bite, which turns into, you know, we’re looking for government to answer all of our questions for us.”

But the bag ban’s supporters say it’s a tiny example of government getting involved in residents’ lives and that it is desperately needed. Ban proponents, including the Mat-Su Zero Waste Commission’s Plastic Bag Committee, say strong wind in the region blows the bags all over, endangering wildlife and introducing harmful chemicals to an ecosystem that produces food that people eat, like salmon.

Carol Montgomery, the committee’s unofficial chairwoman, said the errant bags also generally make the Mat-Su look messy. Even when people are being personally responsible by properly disposing of plastic bags, Montgomery said, the bags can still blow out of trash cans or the landfill.

“Those bags, you see them skittering across the street everywhere. There’s no way to safely contain plastic bags here in the Valley. There’s no way to really dispose of them without them flying away,” Montgomery said. “This is a minimal amount of government regulation to solve a really big problem.”

The Plastic Bag Committee will support a bag ban in the city of Palmer, if a proposal for one is introduced, and they have plans to hand out free, reusable bags to Valley residents at an upcoming public event, Montgomery said.

Meantime, there are broader efforts underway to reduce the use of disposable shopping bags.

At its meeting next Tuesday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly will again take up the idea of putting a borough-wide tax on plastic bags. That would be 10 cents per bag for retailers of gross annual sales of $1 million dollars or more.

And at the state level, Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson has pre-filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would put a statewide, 20-cent-per-bag fee on disposable bags. In its current form, the bill provides exceptions for certain things, including newspapers, but it does not make a distinction between paper or plastic bags.