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Should the Mat-Su Borough tax plastic shopping bags?

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: August 2, 2017
  • Published August 1, 2017

PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is considering a 10-cent plastic shopping bag tax as a way to reduce the volume of trash in Alaska's fastest-growing community.

A proposed ordinance at the borough Assembly meeting Tuesday calls for the tax on large retailers to "reduce the use of plastic." The excise tax wouldn't directly be charged to the public but could be passed on to shoppers in the form of a fee by retailers.

A plastic bag is caught along South Alaska Street in Palmer. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Assembly is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance Aug. 15.

Alaska has no plastic bag taxes, and only a few places ban bags: Cordova, Bethel and Hooper Bay.

The Mat-Su tax was proposed by the Plastic Bag Committee of the Mat-Su Zero Waste Coalition. The group is affiliated with nonprofit Valley Community Recycling Solutions, which operates the public recycling facility next to the borough landfill.

Mat-Su residents use an estimated 21 million plastic bags a year, according to an extrapolation of national data by the committee.

Collecting the bag tax would cost $60,000 for a half-time position, according to a memo submitted with the proposed ordinance. It could generate an estimated $2.1 million in revenue, though a reduction in the use of plastic bags would cut that number.

Retailers filing timely tax returns can retain 20 percent of the tax due to the borough, according to the memo.

A New York University and University of Chicago joint study showed that a 7-cent bag tax adopted in Chicago earlier this year resulted in a 42 percent drop in the number of plastic and paper bags used by customers a month later.

Backers say the tax would save space in the growing borough's landfill and curb pollution that fouls the environment and dismays tourists. The bags can also pose a threat to animals such as moose and caribou drawn to the crackly sacks.

Sandy and Harvey Bowers, owners of Agate Inn near Palmer, lost a 9-month-old reindeer in 2004 after a plastic bag caused an intestinal blockage. Today, the Bowers make regular sweeps for the bags that blow on their 20-acre property from the busy Palmer-Wasilla Highway.

Agate Inn owner Sandy Bowers feeds her reindeer near the Palmer-Wasilla Highway on Tuesday. Bowers says she regularly must pick up plastic bags from her property after wind blows. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"After every windstorm we patrol the property," Sandy Bowers said. "We're constantly out there picking up plastic bags. That's a daily activity."

Limits on plastic bags can face tough opposition. Amid public disapproval, the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly in 2009 rescinded a 5-cent bag tax only a month after approving it.

Homer's bag ban, enacted in 2012, was repealed by voters in 2013. Repeal leaders called the ban a "nanny state" overreach.

A similar sentiment may greet the Mat-Su tax, according to comments posted on the Plastic Bag Committee's Facebook page. Some posts were supportive, but the borough's libertarian streak was evident in others. Most comments were along the lines of, "Who are you to dictate what other people do?" and "Wanna use that plastic? It's gonna cost you! What's next? Oxygen tax? Get real."

A spokesman for Fred Meyer said the company has a number of stores in the Lower 48 where there are plastic bag bans but none with bag taxes. Fred Meyer and other retailers sell bags made from recycled material that customers can use again and again.

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