On eve of plastic bag ban, is Anchorage ready?

Thin plastic shopping bags (Wikimedia photo by Trosmisiek)

Anchorage is a little more than a week away from implementing a new ban on plastic bags. It’s a move designed to cut down on plastic waste, as well as costs incurred by the public cleaning them up. The change will be immediately felt by residents, retailers and restaurants as overnight businesses will be barred from handing out a ubiquitous part of people’s daily shopping experience.

The municipality has had more than a year to prepare for the new policy, set to go into effect on Sunday, Sept. 15. So, do people know what to expect?

“I think some do. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some don’t,” said Ira Slomski-Pritz, a special assistant in the mayor’s office who has been working on outreach ahead of the ban.

That work involves partnering with local business groups to put out information. A “bag swap” event is in the works. The municipality set up a Frequently Asked Questions page, and sent out volunteers to deliver flyers to local businesses advertising the change. There’s even a phone-line and email account where Slomski-Pritz handles inquiries and clears up confusion.

“Retailers won’t be able to hand out plastic bags in the way they’re handing them out now,” he said. “When retailers would normally use a plastic bag, now they’ll have to use a paper bag and charge 10 cents a paper bag up to 50 cents for the whole transaction.”

The revenue from bag fees stays with the business. They can keep it or donate it; the municipal ordinance does not specify. If retailers don’t comply, code enforcement officers will follow up on complaints and could level fines that get steeper after repeat offenses, up to $500 per violation.

In addition to department and grocery stores, the measure affects plenty of other businesses you might not expect. For example, restaurants.

Ray’s Place is Spenard serves Vietnamese cuisine, including take-out containers full of soups and sauces, the kinds of foods that are prone to spill on the way home. For a long time, the solution to that problem has been a plastic bag you don’t mind tossing out if it gets fouled by spilled soup.

But Ray’s Place has another alternative: it’s own custom reusable bags.

“It’s made out of nylon,” said Curtis Yim, who, along with his wife Joanne, runs Ray’s Place.

During a recent trip to Vietnam they commissioned the bags, which feature their logo and are now sold above the cash register.

“We asked for something that was durable,” Yim said.

Curtis and Joanne Yim, along with mother-in-law Linda Seetomona at Ray’s Place, pictured below the restaurant’s new re-usable nylon bags (Photo by Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

Ray’s Place will have paper bags for carry-out orders, which they will charge for.

“It’s kind of a hassle at first, but everyone sees the benefits of it,” Yim said of the ban.

On trips to Hawaii and California, he and his family have seen how other places have handled similar measures.

As for information about the specifics of Anchorage’s ban, most of that information they have gotten through news reports and word-of-mouth. At checkout counters in grocery stores around town, people tell Yim they are generally aware the change is coming, but unsure about specifics.

When the Anchorage Assembly approved the ban last summer, everyone knew it would take some adjustment for retailers and customers. The body even delayed implementation to give businesses more time to use up their inventory of single-use plastic bags.

There are plenty of exceptions written into the rules for things like meat products, flowers, postcards and more. With such a widespread shift and so many idiosyncrasies, Assembly Member John Weddleton says there are bound to be some headaches. But as the city tries to cut down on plastic waste, a little annoyance might be helpful.

“That’s the whole idea behind it. It will aggravate people like crazy and they’ll say ‘I’ll teach you a lesson, I’ll bring my own bag,'” Weddleton said. “Well, that’s the win.”

Weddleton owns a small business, Bosco’s, a comics and games store with two locations in Anchorage. He believes the measure is a good deal for businesses: they can stop giving a product away for free. He estimates his stores spends $3,000 to $5,000 a year on disposable bags.

Weddleton is also interested in the nitty-gritty particulars of how retailers will adjust to the new measure. It will mean small but important things like retraining clerks to ask if a customer needs a bag at the beginning of a sale, in which case they can add the 10 cent charge before the end of the transaction. Though keenly aware of the pending inconveniences, Weddleton believes the pending change will ultimately be a blip.

“I think most of Anchorage isn’t ready, but they’ll get ready in a hurry and the world won’t end.”