Bethel bans plastic bags in order to cut tundra trash

Approved July 14, ban takes effect September 2010 in city of 5,700

Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The Bethel City Council voted to ban plastic bags and foam plastic takeout containers to reduce windblown trash on the tundra.

"They get caught on the willow bushes on the tundra," said city clerk Lori Strickler, who sometimes stops her four-wheeler to see if she's looking at a ptarmigan - a type of grouse - or a grocery bag perched in the brush.

"Its kind of hard to tell the difference sometimes. A little white bird or a little white plastic bag."

The ban approved July 14 takes effect in September 2010 in the city of 5,700.

Seven years ago, voters overturned a similar ban after businesses rebelled.

An advocate of the ban, Kathy Hanson, told The Anchorage Daily News people are ready for it after seeing so many white plastic bags at the city dump it looked like snow.

Hanson says people know they have options now, such as reusable bags and recyclable plastic. Plus they're hearing more about where the plastic bags end up.

"It's throughout our food chain now," Hanson said. "It's in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean; it's in the plankton."

The Bethel mayor, Joe Klejka, said it remains to be seen whether businesses will try to overturn the ban.

"We're expecting that that might occur again," he said. "I think there's a lot more products available for vendors to use instead, now."

The vice president of the Alaska Commercial store chain, Walter Pickett, said it will switch to biodegradable bags or paper, whichever are less expensive.

Paper bags devour more energy to manufacture and transport than plastic, said Mary Fisher, director of Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling. She recommended shoppers use reusable bags. Biodegradable plastic, which can be made from corn, is designed to break down in compost but can linger in landfills, she said.

There's no curbside garbage service in Bethel, so people take their trash to neighborhood trash bins where the breeze - or ravens - send loose bags parachuting through town.

"It looks like white geese out there. Eight million of them," said David Stovner, manager of the Bethel recycling center.

Tacuk Martz moved from the Cup'ik village of Chevak to Bethel in 1982. Before arthritis crept into her hands, she and other women would sometimes cut the plastic bags into strips and crotchet them into purses.

She welcomed the new bag ban.

"Animals eat them and they get stuck on them," she said. "They cover the plant growth, so they don't grow underneath."

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