City takes another stab at banning single-use plastic bags

The merits and dangers of single-use, disposable plastic bags are once again up for debate in Homer.

Homer City Council member Caroline Venuti sponsored an ordinance that was successfully introduced at the council’s Monday meeting that would ban a certain type of single-use plastic shopping bag. The council voted not only to introduce the ordinance, but to hold an additional public hearing for it before voting. Council member Donna Aderhold suggested the addition to give the council more time to think about the measure and hear from more constituents before deciding whether to pass the ordinance, change it, or scrap it in favor of a ballot proposition for next year’s election.

The Homer City Council passed an ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags in 2012, but it was repealed through a ballot vote brought forward by a citizen initiative. Homer was the fist city on the Kenai Peninsula to approve such a ban. Now, if it comes to fruition a second time, Homer would be the second peninsula city to enact a bag ban after Soldotna, whose new policy takes effect Nov. 1.

There have also been bans passed in several other Alaska cities and villages, including Anchorage, where all soft plastic bags are banned, and Wasilla, which only bans thin single-use bags under 2.25 mils — the same kind of bag Homer banned before.

Council members Heath Smith and Tom Stroozas, who voted against introducing the ordinance, and Shelly Erickson, all said they would rather put the issue to a vote than try to pass a bag ban the way the council did in 2012.

“I’m not prepared to do exactly what the council did five years ago, and that was pre-propose that they knew better than the people,” Smith said. “… We can come back time and time again, that’s fine. That’s basically what people do when they don’t get what they want, they keep asking. But, I think that we go through the right process.”

“As the policy makers in this community, we owe it to the public to let them make the decision,” Stroozas said. “When I go to the grocery store, more often than not I take my reusable bag with me. I have a bunch of them in the back of my truck. I’m always using them. … But very often too, I’ll forget my bag or they’ll put my eggs in one of the those plastic bags.”

Local Girl Scouts have come up with a program that addresses that issue of people forgetting resuable bags: Boomerang Bags, or bags made from recycled T-shirts that can be picked up at participating stores. At Monday’s meeting, Venuti passed out Boomerang Bags.

According to the ordinance, the ban would only apply to plastic bags of a certain thickness.

“‘Single-use plastic carryout bag’ means a bag made from plastic that is neither intended nor suitable for continuous reuse and that is less than 2.25 mils thick,” the ordinance text reads.

That means Homer stores will still be able to use any plastic bag as long as it’s thicker than 2.25 mils. Several, like Homer Jeans, already do. The ban also would not apply to the small bags inside a store used to carry produce and other small items or to bags used to collect dog poop. During Homer’s first bag ban, thicker plastic bags were offered for sale at Safeway.

Venuti said at Monday’s meeting that she has contacted Safeway personnel, who said the store will not oppose the ordinance.

Fifteen people commented about the bag issue before the ordinance was introduced. Two of those commenters were against the idea, with the rest speaking in favor. Council members also mentioned they had received a few emailed comments against the ordinance, and one person spoke against the ordinance during the Committee of the Whole meeting.

One of those speaking against the ordinance was Justin Arnold, a commercial fisherman and the person who spearheaded the citizen initiative to overturn in original bag ban ordinance in 2013.

“It took thousands of hours of a lot of people’s time including mine, and thousands and thousands of dollars to get it repealed five years ago,” he said. “So I’m a little concerned that to see that it’s, once again, an emotionally charged issue that’s being brought up from one person’s agenda.”

Arnold said it seemed like the council was not listening to the people who voted to repeal the ban in 2013. He said he hoped the ordinance would not go farther than Monday night. He has since moved to Anchor Point but still owns property in Homer, and said he would move back if he had to in order to fight the ordinance if it was passed.

“It’s a little disgusting that this is coming up again, to me,” Arnold said.

Erickson, who eventually did vote to introduce the ordinance, said in council discussion that she’s concerned the body isn’t looking at the broader issue of irresponsible trash disposal. She said many kinds of trash are bad for the environment, not just plastic bags.

The concern with the very thin, single-use plastic bags, many commenters said, is that they very easily break up once they hit water. Countless single-use bags end up in rivers and the ocean, where they disintegrate into smaller pieces that are ingested by marine life and cannot be easily clean up.

Debbie Tobin, who teaches biology at Kachemak Bay Campus, spoke to the dangers of plastic in oceans.

“I’m also the lead for the local Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and we see lots of marine mammals that are entangled in a variety of types of plastics, including plastic bags,” she said. “… They stick around in the ecosystem for a long period of time, and they are mistaken as food, and they bioaccumulate as one thing eats another, eats another and eats another.”

Tobin said it’s not just animals that have to watch out for plastic in their environment.

“I teach human anatomy and physiology,” she said. “Plastics, like the plastic bottles and plastic bags that we use, they break down into smaller and smaller molecules that we then absorb. And they mimic our endocrines, our hormones. So they act as endocrine disruptors.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, endocrine disruptors have been shown to cause developmental defects and interfere with reproduction in wildlife, but their effects on humans remain is poorly understood.

The first public hearing for the bag ban ordinance will take place on Oct. 8 during the council meeting at Homer City Hall.

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