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Homer voters will decide on plastic bag ban in small Alaska town

Michael ArmstrongHomer News

While the Kenai Peninsula Borough has several initiatives on its ballot, the city of Homer keeps its simple with one question: “Shall Homer City Code Chapter 5.42 prohibiting sellers from providing customers with disposable shopping bags be repealed?” 

A yes vote repeals the plastic bag ban. A no vote keeps the bag ban.

The initiative made the ballot after lifelong Homer resident Justin Arnold put together a petition and gathered sufficient signatures. Arnold, 28, also is running for Homer City Council.

Last year, after strong public testimony in support of a plastic bag ban, the council approved an ordinance introduced by council member David Lewis and co-sponsored by council member Beau Burgess that would ban retailers from providing the onion-skin thin plastic shopping bags, called “T-shirt” bags. Thicker shopping bags would not be banned, as would not plastic bags for produce, meat, spices, dry goods and medicine. The law went into effect Jan. 1, but retailers were allowed to keep using bags in inventory. The Homer Safeway began providing for free paper bags — the bag used in the 1960s and 1970s – and sold thicker shopping bags as well as reusable bags.

Arnold made several points for repealing the bag:

• In terms of the environment, plastic bags use few resources such as energy and water, weigh less to ship unused and as waste and can be recycled.

• Reusable bags can cause disease when shoppers don’t clean bags and germs build up on them.

• The government should not tell citizens what they cannot do and is being a “nanny state” in trying to control behavior.

“I’m not balloting for the bags so much as I’m balloting against the government telling us not to use them,” Arnold said.

Burgess said he sponsored Lewis’ ordinance for these reasons:

• Plastic bags, and plastic containers in general, are a significant waste and trash problem that particularly harms coastal environments.

• Banning thin plastic shopping bags is “low hanging fruit” and easy to accomplish while not causing any hardship or difficulty to anyone.

• The government should regulate activities that harm human health and the environment.

“I think people underestimate the impact of plastic on food and the impact plastic has on the environment,” Burgess said.

As a commercial fishermen, Arnold said he agrees that plastics harm the ocean and that plastic bags can be a trash problem. We regulate trash through littering laws, he said. He made the analogy between the problem of cigarette butts, also a trash problem, and cigarette smoking. 

“I don’t think it’s right they can’t smoke in their own car because there’s a cigarette but on the side of the road,” Arnold said.

The community can address plastic trash through community clean ups, Arnold said. Voluntary, citizen-driven solutions is the approach he likes to see. 

Burgess said because T-shirt bags are so thin, they tend to catch the wind easier and float away. Bjorn Olsen, a Homer environmentalist and filmmaker, documented the problem by photographing plastic bags in trees around the Homer Landfill, now a waste transfer site. When trash was baled and buried at the landfill, plastic bags sometimes tore loose or were torn loose by birds. Burgess said that since the ban went into effect he has seen a marked decrease in plastic bags on the side of the road.

Arnold noted that with the change in the type of waste facility in Homer, plastic bags shouldn’t scatter as much and will be hauled up the road to Soldotna.

“Great,” Burgess said. “So now there are not plastic bags blowing at our dump. It’s blowing at someone else’s dump.”

Plastic bags are an issue that affects everyone, particularly in maritime communities. As bag bans go into effect along the Pacific Coast, that should lead to less of a problem, Burgess said.

Arnold said he sees the plastic bag ban as part of a steady eroding of rights.

“We’re not on the edge of a slippery slope,” he said. “We’re already sliding down a slippery slope. We just need to decide where we want to grab on and get back on.”

If the issue is unnecessary government intrusion, people in favor of less regulation should ask themselves where to draw the line, Burgess said.

“If you like the fundamental argument of ‘I don’t like government telling me what to do,’ go move someplace without a government,” he said. “Move to North Africa. The Middle East is an excellent choice.”

Burgess said people have different ideas of when the state is being a state and when it’s being a nanny. Traditional conservatives think the state is a nanny when it’s regulating guns.

“But the state needs to play a role when it comes time to regulate abortion,” Burgess said conservatives think. “The state is always going to be a nanny to someone.”

Arnold said he thinks the repeal will pass easily. Burgess questioned that. He said the bag ban had strong public support at hearings, with 60 people showing up at one meeting in support of the ban.

“The people who vote, many of them were people who supported the ban,” Burgess said.

“The people who wanted it were a small group who yelled very loudly,” Arnold said. “But I may be wrong.”

One thing Arnold and Burgess agree on is the idea of the initiative itself.

“It’s the purest form of democracy,” Arnold said. “There is no purer form than that.”

“I am very much in favor of this being voted on,” Burgess said. “I would be happy with the vote turning out either way, because once the citizens vote on it, it’s the best form of democracy. We don’t have to double-guess what they want.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. Used with permission.