Has Anchorage’s plastic bag ban worked?

Ordinance aimed at protecting environment appears to be rarely enforced
In 2018, Anchorage passed a plastic bag ban that restricts grocery stores and most retailers from using disposable bags because they pose an environmental hazard
Published: Apr. 12, 2023 at 3:08 PM AKDT|Updated: Apr. 13, 2023 at 3:22 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In 2018, Anchorage passed a plastic bag ban that restricts grocery stores and most retailers from using disposable bags because they pose an environmental hazard.

Now, nearly five years later, that ban appears to have fallen short of its intended goal.

The ban was primarily enacted to safeguard the environment and regulate business owners who failed to comply. Municipal code says a first offense constitutes a warning, a second offense results in a $250 fine and a third offense is worth a $500 fine.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some retailers from using plastic bags and Alaska’s News Source found the city hasn’t been actively enforcing its own rules.

Some Anchorage residents felt the problem of plastic bags littering the trees and bushes has generally been curbed.

“We see fewer bags blowing up against fences during windstorms now, which is a good thing,” said Anchorage resident Melanie Lynch.

“Having all of us reduce our use of plastic is a really good thing,” added Robert Suydam, another Anchorage resident.

In response to bags blowing in the wind and filling landfills back in 2018, the Anchorage Assembly brought the issue to public debate and eventually passed an ordinance that banned the use of most plastic bags.

“We ought to just ban the bag,” Assembly member Chris Constant said during a 2018 meeting.

Constant sponsored the new code that was temporarily lifted in September 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but then reinstated a year later, in September 2021.

However, plastic bags are still being used by some retailers, and both their use and disposal can pose a real threat. Studies show that the bags can endanger wildlife, harm lake and ocean life, and take hundreds of years to decompose.

It begs the question; why are they still popping up throughout Anchorage?

According to Mayor Dave Bronson’s spokesman, Corey Allen Young, Code Enforcement is charged with enforcing the ban on plastic bags in the Municipality. Young said enforcement is complaint driven and when complaints arise, Code Enforcement officials do their best to investigate the issue within 24 hours.

Alaska’s News Source did its own investigation. Reporters contacted the owners of Carrs grocery store locations to get their take on plastic. Sara Osborne, Director of Public and Government Affairs for Safeway and Albertsons’ Seattle Division, told us that all 10 of their Anchorage Carrs stores use only paper and not plastic.

Customers at Anchorage grocery stores are charged a 10-cent per paper bag fee, with a 50-cent cap, which is part of the mandated ordinance. That fee can be used by stores in any way they choose.

In an email, Osborne was asked how Carrs uses that fee.

“Generally, no profit,” Osborne replied. “It could vary but the cost of the bag and the bag fee are very close, and then with continued, occasional ‘double bagging’, as well as the cap of 50 cents total fee per transaction, it’s likely costing us a bit.”

Other Anchorage residents believe the bags should make a return.

“I think it’s ridiculous myself,” said Anchorage resident Jeff Doerr. “Yeah, I think they should just bring the regular bags back.”

Fred Meyer grocery store’s corporate office never responded to questions. When our reporters visited their store on Northern Lights Boulevard on April 4, they found plastic bags being offered in every checkout lane. Fred Meyer’s plastic bags are thicker than most and labeled “reusable,” but the code states a reusable bag must be a “machine washable fabric ... or material that can be cleaned and disinfected regularly.”

When returning to the same Fred Meyer store this week, all of the plastic bags had disappeared. Upon request, one associate tried his best to locate one, looking in every checkout lane and even behind each cash register, but he couldn’t find one.

Fred Meyer did not respond to requests for comment as to where they all went, but some of their own customers say good riddance.

After this story aired, Fred Meyer and QFC Corporate Affairs Manager Tiffany Sanders on April 13 sent Alaska’s News Source the following statement:

“Fred Meyer encourages all customers to use reusable bags at checkout. To assist customers and provide a seamless shopping experience, Fred Meyer also makes paper bags accessible. In the event of paper bag supply constrains 2.25 ml bags are offered and are within compliance of the ordinance as they may be reused up to 125 times and cleaned.”

There are some exceptions as to when plastic bags can be used. For example, they’re permitted at pharmacies or when items are bought in bulk, like nuts or candies. Plastic can also be used for dry cleaning and newspapers.

Anyone who would like to file a complaint can click on the #ANCWorks website, go to the city’s website or call their code enforcement hotline 907-343-4141. The maximum fine for violating the ban is $500 for each third or subsequent offense.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.