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The unacceptable politics of the plastic bag ban

  • Author: William J. Evans
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 1
  • Published May 3

In this Monday, March 30, 2020, photo, a shopper leaves a grocery story with food packed in a paper bag, where the dime-per-bag fee has been waved during the coronavirus outbreak, in Seattle. Just weeks earlier, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee. Grocery clerks are nervous that the virus could linger on reusable fabric bags and their unions are backing them up with demands to end plastic bag fees and suspend bag bans. The plastics industry has seized the moment, lobbying to overturn existing bans on single-use plastics. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

During the past several weeks, the residents of Anchorage have endured a number of restrictions in the service of public health. Restrictions that have cost jobs, restrictions that have cost businesses and restrictions that have prevented people from coming together for worship, weddings, funerals and just normal socializing. In short, we have been called to sacrifice in order to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our health care infrastructure. While difficult, these sacrifices have been necessary and the citizens of Anchorage have done a commendable job of “flattening the curve.”

For the most part, the leadership at both the municipal and state levels has done a good job in navigating the nearly unnavigable challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The cost has been significant, but those costs have been admirably borne by the citizens who have, and continue, to do their share to protect Anchorage.

There is, however, one glaring exception: the plastic bag ban. Despite requiring Anchorage citizens to turn their lives upside down in the name of safety, to forfeit (hopefully temporarily) their businesses or livelihoods, neither the administration nor the Assembly has sought fit to make the small sacrifice of repealing the ban on plastic bags and eliminating the use of using reusable bags.

Defenders of the plastic bag ban may grouse that opponents of the ban are simply using the pandemic as an excuse to overturn legislation that they do not like – and that may very well be true. But the fact that your opponents may be gratified by your action is no reason to delay taking action to curb the potentially harmful effects associated with the use of reusable bags. To date, while the municipality has relaxed its restriction on the use of plastic bags temporarily and eliminated its required tax on paper bags, it has taken no steps to address the more problematic issue of people bringing their personal reusable bags to the store.

One does not have to look any further than San Francisco to realize that repealing plastic bag bans and prohibiting the use of reusable bags is not a “right-wing conspiracy.” San Francisco was, not surprisingly, one of the first cities in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic bags. This month, however, faced with the pandemic, San Francisco put aside its political preference and actually banned the use of reusable bags in the interest of protecting grocery and other workers. I am sure the political leaders of San Francisco did not want to take this step. But they did so in the interest of public safety. (It should be noted that a number of other states and cities have also delayed, suspended or repealed similar plastic bans).

In Anchorage, despite having asked our citizens to go to enormous and unprecedented steps to combat the pandemic, the political leaders have not seen fit to take the relatively small step of increasing our protection by discontinuing the use of reusable bags. If fighting the pandemic is sufficient justification for people having to sacrifice their jobs, it should certainly justify the sacrifice of a political sacred cow. For those justifiably concerned about the proliferation of plastic bags, the use of biodegradable paper bags affords a better option than the use of reusable personal bags. This would certainly be true at present, but should remain true in the long run as COVID-19 is not the last or only virus with which we need concern ourselves.

All in all, I applaud the manner in which officials have handled this crisis. This one glaring exception, however, should be addressed. We’ve been asked by our city leaders to do all we can to fight the pandemic. It is only right that we ask our city leaders to do the same.

William J. Evans is an attorney. He lives in Anchorage.

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