Story last updated at 8:27 PM on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'Green fee' for plastic?

By Aaron Selbig
Staff Writer

A common shopping experience, having your groceries gathered up in disposable plastic shopping bags for easy hauling out to the car, may soon be priced into extinction, if Homer City Council member David Lewis has his way.

Lewis is the sponsor of a proposed ordinance, introduced by the council at its Monday meeting, which aims to put a 25-cent "green fee" on every plastic bag that leaves the doors of local retailers. The fee will be paid by the customer, collected by the retailer and turned over -- minus a 10 percent cut for the retailer -- to the city. According to the ordinance, funds collected by the new fee will be evenly distributed between the Homer Foundation and implementation of Homer's Climate Action Plan.

"I'm really just trying to get a conversation going on this issue," said Lewis, who got the idea from similar legislation passed in New York, Seattle and Ireland. "There is a lot of sensitive wildlife habitat in this area and it's a shame to see it littered with plastic grocery bags."

At Monday's meeting, support for the ordinance's overall goal -- "to discourage and decrease the use of disposable shopping bags in the city" -- was strong among members of the public who testified on the matter.

"There's a lot of benefits that it could bring, particularly if the fee helps to fund sustainability," said Alan Parks.

Plastic bags are a big problem in the Lower 48, particularly in the South, said Jane Regan.

"After a big windstorm, there are hundreds of plastic bags in the trees," she said. "It's really icky and I would like to avoid that happening here."

Bob Burns showed council members his collection of reusable canvas bags and voiced support for their use, but wondered if Lewis's ordinance was the right way to tackle the problem.

"I'm encouraging a little bit of caution," he said. "I would recommend some kind of information dissemination program to get the community behind this. I would hesitate to force it on anyone."

Although they voted unanimously to introduce the ordinance, several council members also expressed concerns about it.

"We should not presume that everyone cares about this," said council member Beth Wythe. "How are we going to collect this tax? Will we collect it on visitors? I think the connotation of regulation really puts a negative spin on it."

"I agree with the goal, but I'm concerned that this is a tax," said council member Barbara Howard. "I'm concerned about the burden we would be putting on the merchants collecting the tax."

Mark Hemstreet, store manager for Save-U-More, said the 25-cent fee would likely discourage his customers, most of whom already use boxes or reusable bags to carry their groceries, from using plastic bags.

"Overall, I'm not opposed to the idea, but we just have to be able to manage and keep track of collecting the money," said Hemstreet. "The plastic bags are an expense that we eventually would like to get rid of."

Safeway assistant manager Mel Cook said the store is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new ordinance. With an eye toward saving money, Safeway offers customers a 3-cent discount when they use a reusable bag.

"It works good," said Cook. "We do have quite a few people who take advantage of that and it helps reduce the amount of plastic bags out there."

The ordinance will be open for public hearing at the council's next regular meeting, scheduled for Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cowles Council Chambers at City Hall.

Lewis said he looks forward to the debate.

"I think this is an idea whose time is here," he said.

Aaron Selbig can be reached at