Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 3:34 PM on Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Homer News Editorial
    Council should bag ban on plastic bags

The Homer City Council's recent ban on certain plastic bags is well intentioned, but misguided. The action raises several important questions: Is this the proper role of city government? Is this how the community wants the council to spend its time? Aren't there more important issues for the council to address?

The supporters of the ordinance are absolutely right: These thin plastic bags become litter, get into the ocean and can be an environmental hazard. The bags, like other plastic, can harm marine life and other wildlife. They're unsightly. Not enough of them get reused and recycled. There are better ways to bag groceries.

That said, is the recently passed ordinance the best way to change behavior and get people to use their own shopping bags?

Our take: No. A thousand times, no.

Most people don't take well to being told to do the right thing. They want to do the right thing, but they don't want to be backed into a corner and forced to do it. They want to understand how changing their behavior will make a difference. They want to know that the council's action won't cost them more money. In this case, they want to know that the price of groceries and others goods isn't going to go up to pay for the cost of paper bags or other plastic bags that haven't been banned.

Ironically, the plastic bag ban runs counter to the city's much lauded Climate Action Plan. That plan encourages the community to recycle and to reduce its carbon use. The plastic bags that have been banned are both recyclable and use less fuel to make and transport than paper bags.

Which begs the question: Does the ordinance really accomplish what supporters have in mind?

The great thing about the city's Climate Action Plan is that the city takes the lead in the recommendations. It sets an example for businesses and residents to follow voluntarily. It doesn't tell citizens they have to do x, y or z.

If the plastic bags that have been banned are really that big of a problem, the council could avoid appearing like Big Brother by partnering with the businesses that use them and a nonprofit that seeks to reduce marine debris and provide some compelling education about better ways to bag our goods. That nonprofit could even make a few bucks by selling reusable bags as part of the education process.

The biggest question the council's action raises, however, is this: Where does the city government's reach end?

While they may not pose the same hazards to wildlife as plastic, aluminum cans also are a source of unsightly litter. Why not ban those as well? And, the community could really reduce its carbon footprint by driving less, biking more and making sure everyone set their thermostats at 66 degrees. Does the council want to go there? There are lots of diseases associated with obesity. Could the council improve the health of the community and reduce everyone's health care costs by telling citizens what they should weigh?

How about banning smoking in bars and restaurants? Oops, the council already tried to go there and it didn't work, remember? Instead, over the years, many bars and restaurants have voluntarily become nonsmoking establishments. Isn't that a better way to do it?

Council members need to rethink their job.

Certainly, city government should encourage a clean, livable community, but does that include banning some plastic bags and allowing other materials that harm the environment just as much? Ensuring public health and safety and providing the kinds of infrastructure that private business can't provide on its own top our list of what the council should focus on.

What are the city's most pressing issues? Not plastic bags. Clean water, safe neighborhoods, good roads and an economy that's friendly to families with young children, seniors and everyone in between make our list.

If the council can't repeal the plastic bag ban, then Mayor Jim Hornaday should veto it — not because the goal of using reusable bags is wrong, but because there's a better way to get to that goal. And, then, if the council still believes Homer has a plastic-bag problem, instead of strong-arming businesses and consumers to use different bags, it should come up with a plan that encourages — rewards, even — the use of reusable bags.