Single-use plastic bag ban takes effect in Unalaska

When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2019, Unalaska’s grocery stores swapped out plastic bags for paper. (Photo by Berett Wilber/KUCB)

As of Tuesday, single-use plastic bags are no longer allowed in Unalaska.

The City Council unanimously passed the ban in August – after six months of discussions and overwhelming public support.

“We’re trying to do things to shrink our footprint on refuse and we have a landfill that potentially has 15-18 years of life left in it,” said City Manager Thomas E. Thomas. “We see that this plastic is beginning to effect our environment in detrimental ways especially out here. We have members of our community that live on subsistence and that begins to affect their quality of life as well.”

Under the ban, there is a $100 fine for business that continue to provide disposable shopping bags; the ban does not apply to plastic bags used to package bulk items like fruit.

But Thomas isn’t worried about violations.

“Because we’ve had good communication with the vendors who sell these disposable bags knowing the guidelines,” Thomas said. “They’ve had a good six months to get rid of them. But in the event there is a potential complaint, we’ll try to work with them to make sure there is no misunderstanding about the rules and guidelines before going into potential implementation of the fine.”

The vendors primarily impacted by the ban are the grocery stores: Safeway and Alaska Ship Supply.

“There are 175 cases left, with 1,000 bags in a case,” said Alaska Ship Supply Store Manager Eric Hanson. “It’s better than where I thought we were going to be sitting at this point.”

Hanson says because the leftover bags have the Alaska Ship Supply logo, it’s unlikely anyone will want them. Instead the 175 thousand bags will be sent to Alaska Ship Supply’s cardboard recycler who also accepts plastics.

Alaska Ship Supply has started stocking reusable plastic bags and will also provide paper sacks.

“We’re hoping people will bring their own bags most of the time and I’m sure locals will,” Hanson said. “It will be a learning curve for everyone else. It’s happened other places and people will adjust and get used to it.”

Hanson estimates paper bags cost about 2.5 times a plastic sack. Safeway store manager Abe Palmer says switching to paper has quadrupled the cost of supplies for the store.

Safeway will also provide paper bags, but as of Jan. 1 Safeway will no longer provide free cardboard boxes for all patrons – the boxes Palmer says will only be for commercial fishing customers.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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