Juneau businesses and the environment

Rainbow Foods stopped giving out plastic bags on July 4

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008

Giving out plastic bags in grocery stores is now illegal in San Francisco. Political summits worldwide are addressing the issue of reducing waste. Countries as far off as Australia are being lauded for strides in environmental awareness. But what are we doing here in Juneau?

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One of the growing environmental concerns of our times is the management of waste, especially plastics. When discarded, plastics take approximately one thousand years to break down completely. Our landfills are maxing out rapidly. Of course, we can always expand them or designate new lands - leaving ever-growing testimony of our irreverent attitude toward nature to future generations. Recycling is only part of the answer; unfortunately it poses only a short-term Band-Aid. Some plastics can be recycled, others can't; most plastics are not recycled. Juneau's Arrow Refuse collects glass, cardboard, paper, two types of plastic, and metals for recycling, but only glass is actually recycled locally (it is used in road maintenance). All other recyclable materials are shipped to Seattle by barge to be processed there or to be transported on to other locations for further processing. However inefficient this process might be, it is a start. At this point, only private citizens can use the recycle center (located just past the entrance to the landfill) for free. Businesses must pay an annual flat fee if they want to recycle, and there is no pick-up service. Most of the bars and restaurants in Juneau would be open to recycling, but due to lack of incentives many of them can't seem to fit trucking the materials out to the landfill into their busy schedules.

An inspirational local leader striving toward a cleaner planet is Rainbow Foods, who, since July 4th of this year, completely stopped giving out plastic bags. The popular health food store now offers canvas bags and bio-plastic bags, a corn-based alternative, for sale to its customers. Nviroplast™ is a company that manufactures these plastic-looking bags, among other things like eating utensils, plates, cups, etc. Anyone who uses biobags can tell you that they behave very much like ordinary plastic bags, yet they are not only biodegradable, but also compostable. It takes about a week before these bags start to degrade, but until then you have an excellent alternative to plastic. The company makes various shapes and sizes, and the only drawback is the price: After shipping, a 70-gallon yard bag may cost around 73 cents per bag, whereas ordinary black plastic bags can be purchased locally for 19 cents per bag.

Environmentally conscious Sen. Kim Elton and House Rep. Andrea Doll, in cooperation with Turning the Tides, have introduced bills for a 15-cent fee to be levied on all plastic bags distributed in Alaska retail stores. This would be to help even out the playing field for the producers of environmentally friendly bio-plastic bags while also encouraging the use of cloth bags.

There are indications that the tides are beginning to turn here in Juneau. Some local businesses, such as the Alaskan Hotel, are switching to biodegradable garbage bags; many local businesses, such as Fred Meyer, Safeway, SuperBear, and Wal-Mart, sell reusable bags, and some - such as Fred Meyer, Safeway, and SuperBear - are granting their customers a small rebate for refusing free plastic bags and using their own bags or containers. The rebate is small, and the idea has yet to catch on with many of Juneau's citizens who are still unaware of it or aren't used to the concept of being paid for using their own bags.

It seems like we've authored our own demise with the shoplifting scare of the 1980s when "taking your own bag" was shunned. This rebate has a similar effect on the customers as the proposed fee on bags would have: Those who refuse the store's plastic bags end up with more money in their pockets compared to those who rely on them. It's up to the customer to make the choice.

Turning the Tides is happy to report on trends toward environmentally friendly practices in Juneau. We would like to invite local stores and businesses to inform us about their efforts to be part of the solution, and we invite everyone in Juneau to tell us about their observations. For sure, there are many businesses and individuals in Juneau who have come up with a variety of ways to reduce the pollution of air, water and land. We from Turning the Tides would like to enter into dialogue with you; we are interested in your ideas and observations and would like to publish them as an inspiration to others. We invite you to visit our Web site, to e-mail us, to be placed on our e-mailing list and to come to our meetings.

• Joshua Adams (of the Alaskan Hotel and Bar, Inc.) is a member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally-friendly living and alternatives to plastics. To contact the organization, call 907-789-0449 or visit www.turningthetides.org.

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