Starting Tuesday, the city of Homer’s ban on thin, disposable shopping bags took effect. Ban supporters expecting an ecotopia where every shopper carries a reusable bag and plastic bags disappear overnight won’t see that. In fact, today, next week and even next summer might look a lot like last year as businesses use up plastic bags purchased in 2012.
“The ban won’t take effect until people have exhausted their supply of bags,” Homer Mayor Beth Wythe said, noting a key amendment to the ordinance passed by the Homer City Council in late August. That will include seasonal businesses that bought bags before closing on Labor Day.
Former Mayor James Hornaday vetoed the ordinance, but the council overrode that veto in September. The ordinance sponsors, council members David Lewis and Beau Burgess, proposed the law because the use of disposable bags “creates burdens on the local solid waste system and degrades the environment,” the ordinance reads. In backing the ordinance, Burgess also noted the effect of plastic bags on Homer’s marine environment.
Even a plastic bag manufacturer conceded the intent of Homer’s ordinance and other similar bag bans in Oregon and Seattle.
“That’s basically what it comes down to: it’s a litter use. That’s the sole force behind the banning of plastic bags,” said Bob Crosby, vice-president of sales for Trellis Earth Products, a biodegradable bag company in Wilsonville, Ore. Although biodegradable bags break down, they also contain polymers made from petroleum products.
The plastic bag ban also doesn’t cover all bags.
The ordinance specifically bans just the thin bags intended to carry customer purchases. What about food wrappers, bags for meat, bags for nails at the hardware store and laundry bags? Can plastic bags still be sold for use by customers? Confused about the ordinance? Here’s the bad, the good and the ugly about bags.
Bad: Ordinance 12-36(a) specifically bans:
• Disposable plastic bags 2.25 mils thick — a bag about one-third the thickness of a sheet of 20-pound weight copy paper — that are designed to carry customer purchases from the store. The bag industry often calls these “T-shirt” bags because of the resemblance to a shirt.
• Biodegradable bags made partially of corn starch and other plant-based polymers, such as the Trellis Earth Products.
Plastic bags exempted from the ordinance include:
• Thicker, potentially reusable plastic bags like those used at stores like North Wind and Homer’s Jeans.
• Bags used to package bulk food items such as fruit, vegetables and candy;
• Bags for hardware items such as nails and screws;
• Bags to contain damp and messy foods such as ice cream and meat;
• Bags for items such as flowers and plants
• Bags for prepared foods such as sandwiches and baked goods;
• Bags for prescription drugs
• Bags for newspapers, laundry and dry cleaning;
• Bags to contain pet waste; and
• Bags sold for use off the seller’s premises for the collection of garbage and yard waste.
Critics of the Homer bag ordinance and others in the U.S. say that using reusable cloth and synthetic material bags can lead to the spread of disease. Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a plastic bag trade organization, cited a University of Arizona, Tucson, study that showed the presence of bacteria in unwashed bags. He also mentioned a 2010 incident in which members of an Oregon girls soccer team got sick from food carried in a reusable bag.
In that incident, the bag of food had been left in a bathroom used by a girl sick with a norovirus, a highly contagious stomach and intestine bug. Other soccer players then ate food from that bag.
In a paper by scientists with the Oregon Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the authors concluded that an aerosol form of the virus from the sick girl spread to the bag and its contents, and that by touching the bag and eating the food, the other girls got sick. The authors recommended not storing food in bathrooms and that areas where aerosol contamination occurred should be thoroughly disinfected.
Several stores in Homer sell reusable bags, including bags made by local artisans from old T-shirts.
The soccer team incident demonstrates the importance of washing reusable bags, said Dr. Michael Cooper, Alaska deputy state epidemiologist. The big risk in contaminants is from putting food in reusable bags, he said.
“Advising people to probably never put meat, fish, poultry in a bag unless you’re going to be washing it thoroughly is probably a good practice,” Dr. Cooper said.
The fact that Homer’s ordinance allows meat, poultry and food to be put in plastic bags also should minimize the risk of contamination, he noted.
The University of Arizona paper said washing bags reduced the amount of bacteria by 99.9 percent and recommended public health campaigns for reusable bags noting the need to wash bags and separate raw foods from other food products.
One of the bigger users of thin, disposable bags, the Homer Safeway grocery store, will switch to paper bags when it uses up its supply of thin, disposable bags. In Safeway’s opinion, that’s not the best approach, however, said Sara Osborne, Safeway public and government affairs director, Bellevue, Wash.
“Safeway’s primary concern is that this ban will not encourage the use of reusable bags, but instead simply convert customers to using paper bags, which is not an effective environmental solution,” she said.
Daniels of APBA had a similar criticism: in terms of energy and resource use compared to paper bags, plastic bags made from natural gas use less energy to make, and that paper bags use more water to be made.
“Homer’s plastic bag ban will not only hurt consumers’ pockets, but also push them toward less sustainable alternatives,” Daniels said.
Osborne said Safeway’s experience in other U.S. markets is that reasonable fees of 5 to 10 cents for paper bags change consumer behavior and encourage the use of reusable bags.
Safeway won’t charge customers for paper bags in Homer. In other areas with plastic bag bans, Safeway only charges for paper bags if mandated by an ordinance, Osborne said.
In response to Homer’s new ordinance taking effect, Safeway will give away 1,000 reusable bags, Osborne said. It also will offer $1 off the price of its “collapsible tote” style bags.
One issue about Homer’s plastic bag ban remains cloudy: How will it be enforced? The ordinance says “the penalty for each violation shall be a fine of $50,” but does that mean a day? A one-time fine?
“Those are still those lingering questions,” Wythe said. “Who is going to monitor that? Those are things that need to be addressed.”
Wythe said Lewis and Burgess told her they would bring to the council some suggested amendments to the bag ban ordinance that would clarify those points, but she hasn’t seen those amendments yet.
“Hopefully, Beau and or Dave will come forward with some sort of ordinance modification that will help us with that,” Wythe said. “The biggest question is getting the ordinance so it is understandable and enforceable. Hopefully that will be forthcoming in the next month.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.