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June 3 deadline for initiative to repeal ban on plastic bags

Posted: May 1, 2013 - 4:17pm

With a month to the June 3 deadline for turning in petitions, a citizen initiative to repeal Homer’s plastic bag ban as of this week has collected more than half the 230 signatures needed to get the initiative on the October ballot. 

Organizers need 25 percent of the ballots cast last October, said Justin Arnold, 27, the initiative organizer. As of Tuesday, Arnold, who is recovering from a broken collarbone, said sponsors had gathered about 150 signatures from registered Homer voters.

“Barring another major catastrophe in my life, we’re going to see it on the ballot this fall,” Arnold said.

If Arnold and other initiative sponsors collect enough signatures, voters would vote on a simple question: Shall Ordinance 12-36(a) be repealed?

Passed in a 4-2 vote on Aug. 27, and vetoed by former Mayor James Hornaday, the Homer City Council also overturned Hornaday’s veto in a 4-2 vote. The ban went into effect Jan. 1, but allows businesses to use up supplies of plastic bags purchased last year. The ordinance does not ban bags sold for household and business use, produce and meat bags, bags for bulk items and bags for dog poop disposal.

It only bans merchants from giving away 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.


In council testimony, one opponent presented a petition signed by 320 people urging the council not to pass the bag ban. At a hearing on the veto vote, a standing-room only crowd showed up, with 29 people speaking for or against it. Former council member Beth Wythe, now Homer mayor, voted to uphold Hornaday’s veto, as did council member Barbara Howard. Council members Beau Burgess, David Lewis, Francie Roberts and Bryan Zak voted for the bag ban. Burgess, appointed to the council, was elected in October, and Roberts was re-elected, defeating a third candidate, James Dolma, for the two seats. Dolma, who also supported the bag ban, was later appointed to fill out the remainder of Wythe’s term.

Arnold describes himself as a Republican interested in libertarian views like those of Congressman Ron Paul. He said he started the initiative out of a philosophical belief that government should not over-regulate citizens.

“It’s not as much about the plastic bags to me, it’s about the idea that our government is becoming a nanny,” he said.

Bjorn Olson, a Homer environmentalist and filmmaker who made the film “Where in the Heck is Donlin?”, a film about the Dunlin mine in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta, said he supports the bag ban. He sees the issue from the opposite perspective.

“Not having to remember to bring a shopping bag with you and relying on the retailer to provide one is nanny behavior,” he said.

There are many arguments for and against a bag ban, Arnold said. He said he’s spent 80 hours researching the issue. Plastic bags are made from natural gas that would otherwise be flared off, he said. They’re more energy efficient to make. Paper bags, an alternative used at Safeway, use more water to make. Plastic bags can be recycled for purposes like plastic decking materials. They also can be repurposed as waste bags. He does concede that plastic bags can be a trash problem, one of the reasons council member Burgess cited for supporting the ban.

Olson said he considers plastic bags part of the bigger issue of plastic waste, particularly in oceans. Single-use plastic bags can take 1,000 years to degrade, he said.

“More than city ordinances banning single-use plastic bags needs to be done, but this is a good start,” he said. “It is a show of good will from the citizens that we value clean, healthy and vibrant marine environments that do much more than simply feed us.”

Olson mentioned a recent trip he had made to the Homer landfill where he saw a north wind blowing plastic bags over the bluff and into Kachemak Bay. Olson posted photos he took on his Facebook page.

Arnold said he’s seen photos of plastic bags blown by the wind at the Homer landfill.

“That is a dump problem,” he said. “We both know at the end of this year we’re going to be using a transfer station.”

Only Homer citizens can collect signatures on the initiative. Sponsors can sign out signature packets, and under city and state law, have to keep the packets in sight and observe people signing the initiative. About 10 business owners have asked to sponsor petitions and put them out to sign, but because they’re not city residents, they can’t do that, Arnold said. He is collecting signatures on a separate petition from nonresidents, and has about 300 signatures so far.

One of the initiative sponsors is Chris Story, a Homer Realtor who also has a radio show, “Alaska Matters.”

Like Arnold, Story cited philosophical reasons for wanting to repeal the bag ban.

“It’s your freedom to run your business,” Story said.

It didn’t seem right that the city could tell businesses it couldn’t give bags to shoppers while at the same time the city is giving away plastic bags in kiosks on the Spit Trail to scoop dog poop, he said.

“There’s no winning this argument other than say, ‘It feels good. I want to live in a Carmel (Calif.)-type community,’” Story said.

Personally, Story doesn’t like plastic bags, with his family using reusable canvas bags or cardboard boxes to carry groceries, he said.

Arnold said when he’s tried to collect signatures, people are generally supportive. In some areas he gets 100 percent agreement while in others it’s 10 percent. Arnold likes to talk about the issue with people.

“I’ve had people who are very green say, ‘You have a good point and let’s have it happen,’” he said. “I’ve changed opinions on people who are very open minded.”

A commercial fishermen who fishes for red salmon in Bristol Bay, Arnold said he hadn’t been involved in the bag ban issue when it came up before city council. He also does some construction work. He said for many people it didn’t become an issue until it took effect. Organizing the initiative has introduced him to politics.

“People like me don’t have time to run,” he said.

With two small businesses and putting in 20 hours of volunteer work, it’s hard for him to make the time to get interested in politics, he said.

“I don’t have the time, but I’m figuring out I have to find the time if I want a voice,” Arnold said.

Story said the initiative process serves to rein in government when people perceive it has been overly zealous.

“When they go too far with a power grab, the people check them,” Story said. “We’ll see. If you believe they’ve gone too far, you can hold them in check.”

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

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LaFern 05/02/13 - 08:48 am
Good idea, Wrong way to do it

The city was extremely foolhardy to enact a ban without proper provisions to encourage people to use less plastic rather than force them to. The long lines at the Safeway are excruciating enough, and their staff are completely befuddled by paper bags, which take TREES (and a huge chunk of the recycled paper industry) to make and are a step backwards just as much as plastic is.

Homer needs to do one simple thing, and it doesn't need to look any further than what our neighboring cities in the northwest from Oregon to British Columbia have done. They didn't "ban" plastic bags, they made them cost MONEY. You would be surprised at how fast people switched to using reusable bags once stores told them that each plastic bag would cost just 10 cents. Just 10 cents a bag! It was breakneck speed after the price was enacted, and even in the largest supermarkets in the largest cities you'd be hard pressed to find people who don't have their own reusable bags after a month.

A city edict can't change the lifestyles of thousands of people overnight, and that's what most environmentalists don't consider when pursuing ecological issues. They have ideas and goals that benefit everybody but they need to meet people halfway and make allowances for small steps.

Terry R
Terry R 05/02/13 - 01:06 pm

After research at UAS years ago with a small group of biologists, and then following up recently with new data, the conclusion for me remains the same: there is virtually no difference between the two products, from start to finish. Harm done? Costs expended? They have the identical overall, long-term impact! The best solution of all? BYOB - canvas or cloth, washed frequently!

It takes 14 million trees for paper and 12 million barrels of oil for plastic. The production of paper bags creates 70 percent more air pollution than plastic, but plastic bags create four times the solid waste. Since they can last up to a thousand years, recycling them into use for things like roadbeds, building materials, etc means those items would last, too. According to a life cycle analysis by Franklin Associates, Ltd, plastic bags create fewer airborne emissions and require less energy during the life cycle of both types of bags per 10,000 equivalent uses -- plastic creates 9.1 cubic pounds of solid waste vs. 45.8 cubic pounds for paper; plastic creates 17.9 pounds of atmospheric emissions vs. 64.2 pounds for paper; plastic creates 1.8 pounds of waterborne waste vs. 31.2 pounds for paper. Plastic, because it's cheaper to produce and purchase, is the overwhelming choice of grocery stores across the nation. For both types of bags, the environmental mantra is the same — reuse and recycle. The cost of doing both is about the same, and the end impact on the environment is about the same.

There is one significant area no one seems to consider: health. In San Francisco, since the plastic bag ban, and with most everyone using cloth/canvas bags there has been a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses, or 5.5 more of them each year. Run through a cost-benefit analysis employing the same estimate of the value of a human life that the Environmental Protection Agency uses when evaluating regulations that are supposed to save lives, they concluded that the anti-plastic-bag policies can’t pass the test -- and that’s before counting the higher health-care costs they generate.

In a 2011 study, four researchers examined reusable bags in California and Arizona and found that 51% of them contained coliform bacteria. The problem appears to be the habits of the reusers. Seventy-five% said they keep meat and vegetables in the same bag. When bags were stored in hot car trunks for two hours, the bacteria grew tenfold. That study also found, happily, that washing the bags eliminated 99.9 percent of the bacteria. It undercut even that good news, though, by finding that 97% of people reported that they never wash their bags.

With proper care, the best choice is still cloth or canvas, BYOB — bring your own bags. From an energy standpoint, according to an Australian study, canvas bags are 14 times better than plastic bags and 39 times better than paper bags, assuming that canvas bags get a good workout and are used 500 times during their life cycle, and if washed. If you forgot to bring your own, then let the store sell bags to you for a nickel, instead of government yet again sticking it's nose where it does not belong and forcing stores and consumers to do its bidding.

Bringing your own canvas or cloth bags or purchasing plastic or paper puts the choice where it belongs: on the consumer. Every resource and reliable website I find agrees - even TreeHuggers.com, although they prefer to ban ALL bags! HowStuffWorks, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, the EPA and so many more sources have shown that it's a toss-up between paper and plastic. The only real solution is to use canvas or cloth bags. In Europe, shoppers have always had to bring their own.

Can government and the People use common sense? CHOOSE, do not let someone else or the government do the choosing for you. Just say no to nanny government and pseudoscience yanking your emotional chain. Let US choose, no more ruling by fiat, that's not a good choice for any of us. Do we really want to go there via ... a grocery bag? Besides, what about Glad trashcan liners, lawn and garden bags, and even the DOT roadside clean-up bags ... the dozens of different kind of plastic bags we use for many things around our homes, offices and even used by government. Ready to give those up, too? I doubt there will be a fall in sales, and in fact, I believe the smallest bags offered for sale, will be the ones people buy to do the jobs once handled by re-used plastic grocery bags. Somehow, those are just A-OK.

What about all the multi-layers of plastic on packages of products, which started out ostensibly to "protect" us? I'm choosing not to buy products swaddled in so much plastic, that if I could melt it down and somehow make fuel from it, I'd get a few gallons to operate my carcinogen-spewing automobile, or ye gads, the mega-spewer, the SUV.

And that, folks, is a wrap!

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