Tundra trash: Bethel prohibits plastic bags

July 21, 2009 

City leaders in Alaska's biggest rural hub, Bethel, voted last week to ban the plastic bags and takeout containers that litter the surrounding tundra for miles with twisted, windblown plastic.

Aimed at stores and restaurants, it's a second try at grocery-bag prohibition for the city. Voters overturned a similar ban just eight years ago after businesses rebelled.

This time, say advocates like Kathy Hanson, "People were ready for it."

For one thing, she said, they know they have options now like reusable bags and recyclable plastic. Plus they're hearing more about where the plastic bags end up. "It's throughout our food chain now," Hanson said. "It's in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, it's in the plankton."

Last spring, the spongy tundra around the dump looked like a tossed-plastic salad. There's no curb-side garbage service in Bethel, so people lug their trash to neighborhood Dumpsters where the breeze -- or ravens -- sends loose bags parachuting through town.

Other remote Alaska communities have already made the leap. Hooper Bay, a sprawling Yup'ik village of 1,200, pulled plastic bags from the shelf earlier this month after using federal grant money to buy reusable canvas grocery bags for every household, said environmental coordinator Bernard Murran.

There, the city and tribal governments agreed to ban the bags after people reported seeing plastic pasted to shores and beaches, hidden in burrows and woven into the nests of shorebirds. "(When) women go pick berries or wild greens, they encounter many of these plastic shopping bags across the tundra," Murran said.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first major city to ban plastic at the checkout counter. Juneau lawmakers proposed bills the same year that would have forced Alaska retailers to collect a 15-cent tax on each plastic bag used by customers, with the money going to reduce and recycle marine debris. The proposals never reached a vote.

It's unclear how many Alaska communities have launched bag bans of their own. Of the Alaska Commercial Co.'s 30-plus stores, six are in places with plastic bans, said vice president of operations Walter Pickett.

Bethel, population 5,700, is now the largest. The A.C. store there registers roughly 1,700 transactions each day, said grocery manager Seth Madole. On average, he said, each of those customer walks away with two bags.

GROCERY BILLS COULD RISE

The Bethel ban, which begins September 2010, also will bar businesses from selling food in foam containers.

That's a big deal in a city where take-out and deliveries are preferred dining.

"We have probably about 10 fast food restaurants here," said Mayor Joe Klejka. "They all deliver ... and they all come in Styrofoam containers."

An exception will be made for biodegradable plastic bags, which one of the major local grocery stores, Swanson's, already uses.

Klejka said it's too early to tell if businesses will look to overturn the vote again. Last time, the push came just before the ban took affect.

"We're expecting that that might occur again," he said. "(But) I think there's a lot more products available for venders to use instead, now, where that might not have been the case five years ago."

Still, switching to paper or recyclable bags could make food more expensive, and recycling advocates say the environmental benefits aren't always clear. Bulky paper bags devour more energy to manufacture and transport than plastic, said Mary Fisher, director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling.

She recommends conservation-minded shoppers use re-usable bags, like the ones being used in Hooper Bay. Biodegradable plastic, which can be made from corn, is designed to break down in compost but can linger in landfills, she said.

Plastic bans are bad news for Alaska Commercial, which will switch to biodegradable bags or paper, whichever is less expensive, Pickett said. "All these markets where you have to air freight the goods into the market, that just drives up the cost to groceries."

MILLIIONS OF "WHITE GEESE"

In many windswept rural towns, the biggest opposition to with runaway bags is simple: They're ugly. They're everywhere.

"It looks like white geese out there. Eight million of them," said David Stovner, manager of the Bethel recycling center.

Tacuk Martz moved from the Cup'ik village of Chevak to Bethel in 1982. Before arthritis crept into her hands, she and other women would sometimes cut the bags into strips and crotchet them into purses. Martz gave one of hers to the Smithsonian, she said.

She welcomes the new bag ban. "Animals eat them and they get stuck on them," she said. "They cover the plant growth, so they don't grow underneath."

Last spring, Hanson watched the tundra as her Ford approached the Bethel city dump, surprised to see the ground still painted in snow. When she realized what she was seeing, she and husband stopped the truck. White bags, hundreds of them, peppered the ground -- plucked from the landfill by ravens and wind and scattered as far as she could see.

Something had to be done. People took pictures and e-mailed them across town. Bosses let workers out of work and schools let students out of school to join a massive clean-up, Hanson said.

The city put a fence around the landfall in the fall, said the recycling manager, and on July 14, the council voted 5-2 for the new ban.

"They get caught on the willow bushes on the tundra," said city clerk Lori Strickler, who sometimes stops her four-wheeler to see if she's looking at a ptarmigan or a grocery bag perched in the brush.

"Its kind of hard to tell the difference sometimes. A little white bird or a little white plastic bag."


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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