Debate rages: paper, plastic or cloth?



Paper or plastic… or neither? That’s the question both grocery stores and environmental groups have been struggling with for years, and it’s an issue that’s grown stronger than ever.

Local grocery stores talk about their recycling efforts and work in the battle against plastic. Alaskan & Proud Owner Ben Williams and Super Bear Store Manager Sam Hobbes said they encourage in-store recycling and use a more environmental friendly, albeit more expensive, type of plastic bags that break down quicker. Williams said grocers really do a good job at recycling — and encouraging customers to use their own bags.

Dixie Belcher of Turning the Tides, a local nonprofit environmental organization, said recycling is not the answer because it is not cost effective, saying it costs more to make plastic out of plastic. She added that only 5 percent in Juneau recycle anyway.

She recently addressed the Juneau Chamber of Commerce of this issue and moving customers away from plastic bags, not to mention paper ones, through fees. She said it is necessary to help encourage the use of reusable cloth bags.

Belcher offered several statistics, including that worldwide there are 1 million plastic bags used per minute, 5,200,000 disposable plastic bags are used in Juneau annually, citing that 6,240 gallons of oil are used in the bags’ production.

She said local supermarkets pay around $104,000 for those bags.

“For every 13 plastic bags I don’t use, I save enough petroleum to drive a car one mile,” she said. “For each reusable bag I do use, I save approximately 400 plastic bags from being used.”

“If it was mandated to switch, of course we would follow with it,” Williams said. “But at this time I think we’re doing the right thing.”

These stores all offer reusable bags but most of them must be bought. Hobbes said it’s unrealistic to expect a store to give away reusable cloth bags if others were banned.

One of the arguments at the Chamber was that most people don’t want to pay for shopping bags and many don’t want to have to remember to bring them each time.

Bruce Abel of Don Abel Building Supply said that he supports efforts to help convince customers to switch to reusable bags rather than force them to through the Legislature.

He said a ban or legislative action on shopping bags would not be practical in deciding what bags customers should use. He said bans can even compound the problem, as those who recycle or reuse the plastic bags in their homes switch to single-use plastic sacks, which has happened in other areas with bans.

Abel added that customers would see a cost even if the bags were given away. “The customer pays for the bags as the cost of the reusable sacks is added to the cost of the retailers merchandise. It is a form of hidden tax and it is unfair to ask everyone to pay to address an interest groups agenda.”

“First of all, we don’t feel like it’s our place to say plastic is good or bad,” said Fred Meyer Public Affairs Director Melinda Merrill. “What we do see is there’s this wave of desire to eliminate plastic and we’re concerned about it.”

She explained a test that the company started in August by eliminating plastic bags in 10 stores around the Portland, Ore. area. She said that so far the majority of customers there have opted for paper bags rather than reusable ones when the plastic option is taken away.

One of those stores, at Hawthorne Boulevard and Cesar Chavez in Portland, is the longest-running experiment.

In 2008, Merrill explained that when there was both paper and plastic in that store in 2008, it used a little over 230,000 paper bags. After plastic was removed for the last half of 2009, it used about 1.4 million paper bags, marking a 56 percent paper bag increase for that time.

“What we learned, even in a city that is well-known for its environmental stewardship, is when you take plastic out and offer reusable bags plus paper for free everyone switches to paper,” she said, adding this tendency would be amplified in Alaska because paper is more expensive and takes up more room than plastic.

She that this helps show that if plastic was banned there needs to be an incentive on reusable bags or customers will continue to use the free paper bags.

She added customers should also get to vote on any kind of legislation or ban that’s put into effect.

Belcher is not in favor of an outright ban in plastic bags, saying they are an extreme solution that don’t encourage changes in customer behavior, make customers feel forced and also encourage paper bags use.

One solution Belcher proposed was bag fees. She said fees have worked in other areas to reduce plastic usage and money generated can go toward addressing the bag issue. She said the recent a 5 cent bag fee in Washington, D.C. has gained support and reduced the bag use.

Hobbes said the idea of a bag tax has been tossed around here for a while. His main concern is the cost raise for customers.

“A nickel to a bag would get messy up front in counting bags and deciding what to charge the customers,” he said. “The bottom line is they want it to be done with plastic and I assume one day that will happen.”

Belcher recommends a 15-cent user fee in Juneau. She said this would generate $700,000 in fees the first year alone. “If consumers don’t like them, they can bring their own bags,” she said.

“Where would the money go and how in the world would it stop an irresponsible person from polluting? This would require government personnel to oversee and manage. It is the least efficient, most expensive way to address the issue. The results of such a tax and how effective the tax would be in actually correcting the perceived problem is impossible to measure,” Abel said.

Belcher believes the stores would not encourage this idea because it would generate too much paperwork and feels that supermarkets would prefer bans but feels that fees would be easier for customers.

“I can’t say I favor one over the other but in the long run a ban is easier to manage,” Hobbes said of bans and fees. “But either one would be a pain.”

Belcher argued that paper bags are also not an answer. “Paper is actually worse. They’re seven times more polluting because of the manufacturing process”

She said reusable cloth bags are the viable alternative, saying each one lasts two years on average and substitutes for 1,000 plastic bag uses.

She said their encouraged use is the best solution, and the fees will do this. When the notion of soy bags that some grocers use was brought up, Belcher said those may not break down in the ocean and can be made of genetically based bacteria, saying, “A lot of them are not what they say they are.”

Reusable bags are just a matter of habit,” she said.

Abel added that he also finds reusable bags cumbersome and unsanitary. Hobbes added that many customers also don’t want to reuse these bags if something leaks in them.

One of Belcher’s strongest arguments was that of plastic’s pollution, saying, “It all ends up in major feeding places and broken up into miniscule sizes and impossible to clean up.”

Belcher further claimed the environmental dangers from plastic, saying 85 percent of them wind up in the ocean, with estimates of 1 million plastic bits per square kilometer in the water. Belcher argued that plastic bags do not break down quickly and can sit in landfills for around 1,000 years.

Some Chamber members expressed doubts and curiosity at this high number. In relation to this, the amount of pollution from plastic bags remains an ongoing debate with various worldwide studies showing different levels of plastic pollution in different sites.

Belcher further argued that plastic shopping bags carry obesogens that affect estrogen levels and cause infant obesity. She continued that plastic chemicals are also harmful to Alaskan fish.

Cost is another factor that encourages the use of plastic. Turning the Tides and the supermarkets all agree that paper is more costly than plastic. Belcher said paper bags cost three times as much as plastic ones, but those numbers can vary. Merrill said Fred Meyer’s plastic costs 1 cent per bag and paper can cost between 3 and 8 cents. Williams said their plastic costs 4 cents a bag while the paper costs 5 cents.

Williams added that the packaging for some products is as much, if not more, of an environmental hazard than the shopping bags. He said such wrapping are often not recyclable but this is an unavoidable thing since it comes from the product and not the store.

“One thing that bugs us is these movements target the big grocery stores and not tourist shops. I’m not a big fan of picking on industry and not another,” Hobbes said.

“People aren’t totally aware and concentrate on the bags, but that’s a side that’s pretty small in Juneau,” Williams said.

Belcher said Turning the Tides is mainly focusing on shopping bags.

Merrill added that reusable bags can also be recycled but people generally don’t do it.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or


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