Debate over a statewide tax on disposable plastic bags in Alaska is drawing in grass-roots activists, small businesses and now the national plastics industry, which has hired a Juneau lobbyist to fight on its behalf.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson introduced legislation earlier this year to create a 20-cents-a-bag tax. He plans to release a revised proposal Friday to ban the bags outright, he said in a phone interview from Juneau this week.
The measure's fate is far from certain: After passing its first House committee last month, it still must clear another committee, then a vote in the full House before heading to the Senate, where it faces skepticism from at least one member of the Republican-led majority.
While Josephson said he's not confident that his House Bill 264 will pass, he said he filed it as a conversation starter. And it has sparked a debate over whether states or cities should be empowered to make the rules over plastic bags — as well as a fight between those who say the bags end up as litter that poses a risk to wildlife, and those who say restrictions would hurt shoppers, stores and manufacturers.
Josephson has support from the plastic bag committee of the Mat-Su Zero Waste Coalition, a citizens group that successfully pushed for an unlikely bag ban in Wasilla, the deeply conservative town outside of Anchorage.
Opponents include the National Federation of Independent Businesses, as well as the Alaska Municipal League — a group that represents Alaska cities, towns and boroughs and wants to preserve their power to set their own rules.
A new ally joined them earlier this month: the American Progressive Bag Alliance.
The group signed a $20,000 contract last week with lobbyist Frank Bickford to represent its interests on "plastic bag legislation, bans and taxes," according to a report filed with state regulators.
The group is based out of the K Street offices of the Plastics Industry Association in Washington, D.C. It doesn't list its members on its website, but an online professional profile of its director, Matt Seaholm, says he works with "companies concerned about regulation of plastics and interested in promoting the value of plastic film and bag manufacturing and recycling."
The group has jumped into fights over plastic bag laws all across the country, from South Carolina to California, where it spent more than $3 million in an unsuccessful effort to repeal a statewide ban. An industry spokesman, at the time, told the San Francisco Chronicle that companies' yearly bag sales in the state were between $100 million and $150 million.
Asked about the group's decision to hire a lobbyist in Alaska, Seaholm, through a public relations firm, sent a prepared statement saying the alliance has taken notice of HB 264.
"It is important for policymakers to know that while sometimes well-intentioned, these policies are misguided," the statement quoted Seaholm as saying. "These taxes hurt those who can least afford it, cause additional burdens on businesses, and result in substitute products that are worse for the environment."
Josephson's push comes after several municipalities have passed bans of their own, from the rural hub town of Bethel, in Southwest Alaska, to Cordova on Prince William Sound to Wasilla, which Josephson calls "the big prize."
He said he disagrees with the plastics industry's assertion that reusable bags are worse for the environment, citing disposable bags' impacts especially in oceans, where seafood can absorb tiny pieces of plastic.
But by another metric, some replacements for disposable bags must be used dozens of times to make their environmental impact smaller. A cotton reusable bag must be used 131 times before its global warming potential is below that of a standard, single-use plastic bag, according to a United Kingdom government study.
That measure, though, doesn't account for the potential aesthetic appeal of keeping the disposable bags out of roads and ditches. That was what pushed Wasilla's city council to approve a ban, said Mayor Bert Cottle.
"People were tired of looking at them going up and down the roads. When's the last time you saw a paper bag lying in a ditch?" Cottle said in a phone interview.
But Cottle, like the Alaska Municipal League, opposes Josephson's legislation because of the way it would apply to the whole state, rather than letting cities and towns decide on bans themselves.
"I don't think the state needs to be telling us that we have to do it," he said.
One member of the Senate's Republican-led majority, Wasilla GOP Sen. David Wilson, agreed. He said he wants to "let local communities make that decision."
Josephson responded by saying that "bags don't understand municipal borders." And he added that he likes to propose "ambitious" legislation, though he said he could be open to a provision allowing municipalities to opt out of his bill — if that was needed to get it the support to pass.
He added: "We think that people will adapt to something that will make Alaska a better place, and Wasilla is proof of that."