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Different sides weigh in on Prop. 5 plastic bag tax

Chain store spokeswoman says tax will increase paper bag use

Posted: October 2, 2011 - 12:08am

Voters will have a choice Tuesday whether or not to impose a 15-cent plastic bag tax for stores with revenues greater than $15 million annually. Different people have different views on what the tax will mean.

Large retailers would charge the 15-cent tax to shoppers using store-supplied disposable plastic shopping bags. The alternatives to paying would be to use paper bags or bring one’s own reusable bags.

This ballot initiative was brought about by a citizens group called Turning the Tides. Its representative, Dixie Belcher, said the tax is the most effective way to change customer behavior as a means to help the environment.

“Plastic bags all by themselves are killing the ocean,” said Belcher. She said such bags are also eaten by sea life, which is later eaten by us as seafood.

Belcher said the tax is an effective way to go about this. She said similar taxes in large stores have proven to work in other cities. She said some stores with such taxes have cut down plastic bag usage by 90 to 95 percent in the first year.

“If it doesn’t pass, most people won’t try to change their behavior,” she said.

She said recycling isn’t an effective alternative for shoppers using reusable bags. She said recycling isn’t economically viable because it costs a lot of money and those recycled bags don’t go for much on the market. She said this has led to a lot of stocks of recycled bags with no place to go.

Belcher said 2007 figures from the Christian Science Monitor state that only 5.2 percent of plastic bags are recycled, and that recycling 1 ton costs $4,000 but could be sold on the commodities market for only $32 after recycling.

“So the economics aren’t very good,” she said.

Belcher said there are four retailers in Juneau at this point that would be affected by the tax: Fred Meyer, Walmart, Safeway and Home Depot. She said that if other retailers’ revenues ever go above the $15 million mark per year, they would also be required to charge the tax.

Of the four named, only Fred Meyer could be reached for comment. Fred Meyer Public Affairs Director Melinda Merrill said the company isn’t necessarily opposed to bag legislation. She said that the issue with this particular one is that it will not be effective nor will it create a level playing field, as it only targets certain retailers. Merrill said the indications point to more shoppers turning to paper bags instead of reusable ones. She said that would still lead to increased costs because paper costs much more than plastic, which would mean increased bag costs and shipping costs.

“We’ll see a 60 percent increase in paper bag use so that would increase our costs tremendously,” said Merrill.

She said that cost would be passed on to the customers.

Belcher said the plastic bag tax wouldn’t have a negative effect on the stores. She said statistics have shown taxes to be very effective.

Merrill said this bag tax as written is flawed because there are no reusable bag incentives, so customers will simply go to paper instead of reusable. She said Fred Meyer has experimented with eliminating plastic bags in Portland stores and the majority of customers turned to paper.

Fred Meyer President Mike Ellis gave testimony before the Oregon Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on this issue last year. He stated that while reusable bags have increased in popularity over the last several years, it was the paper bag use that skyrocketed once plastic was eliminated. He testified that without reusable bag incentives, customers simply shifted from one free disposable bag to another.

It is not only the large retailers who are weighing in on the issue. Wade Bryson, owner of Subway in Juneau, said the tax is unbalanced because it targets the largest retailers and singles out individual types of businesses for tax levies. He said the businesses would experience negative consequences because of it, which will affect their employees who work in Juneau.

He said, if passed, Proposition 5 also opens the door for other unbalanced legislations. He said this could include future laws governing national franchises such as his.

Belcher said Turning the Tides has been working on this issue for 6 years.

She said if it passes, the volunteer group will help out by passing out 1,000 free bags at the food stamp office, food bank and other places where people don’t have a lot of money to spend on bags.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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