The Novel Coronavirus has caused changes in how we interact. With people, with time itself, and with things. Wearing or not wearing a mask in public has become a political act to some. Distillers of fine gin are now distilling sanitizing hand gel. Single-use plastic bags are temporarily rescued from their glide path to oblivion by frontline retail workers deeming them essential protective equipment.
Support of frontline workers is essential, and adjustments that meet the needs of the time are appropriate. The public’s acceptance of emergency changes to laws and practices is flexible but not infinite. When agencies charged with protecting public health, like the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, publicly admit that they are going to ease up on pollution enforcement actions, while at the same time charging ahead with the permitting of a disastrous project like the Pebble Mine, the public acceptance hits a limit. But it’s harder to know where to draw firm lines on slippery slopes when it comes to less clear cut topics like grocery bags.
Before the pandemic communities across the state by ordinance restricted or began charging for the use of single-use grocery bags. This is part and parcel of a movement across the nation, often led by youth, to have us think differently and act differently toward the planet. They intend to help ease the crisis of pollutants, plastics, CO2, mercury, etc. that we are in the middle of. The pandemic has sparked concern over reusable bags as a vector for COVID-19, and local governments have responded by temporarily suspending bag bans and fees. The key is the temporal nature of these actions.
We have to be wary that the emergency will be leveraged to enact an unpopular policy agenda. An ordinance up for public hearing before the Anchorage Assembly on May 19 provides an instructive example. A.O. 2020-49 seeks to repeal the 10-cent per bag fee for “alternative” (paper) bags. The Mayor has already temporarily suspended the Muni’s plastic bag ban and alternative bag fee for the term COVID-19 emergency; this ordinance is different. It would repeal wholesale the hard-fought policy designed to decrease single-use bags and get residents to take greater responsibility for their waste-stream.
We can twist this pandemic response in all sorts of ways politically - and as Americans, you can bet we will, proudly, speaking to our camps - like I am right now. What we cannot do is respond to a crisis by crushing previous work under the boot. The problems we faced before the pandemic are not gone, and we do well to face them bravely, head-on, unblinking. In 2018 the Climate Action Leadership Team operated under the mantra “no crisis-thinking allowed,” meaning, the response to climate change must be thoughtful, and not motivated by incoherent fear. The same sentiment should carry for something as seemingly innocent as single-use grocery bags. We have to think and do things differently for our long-term survival, and if you use the emergency to justify repealing policies that help the planet, you are walking us all backward. Join AYEA youth leaders and let the Assembly know you support the bag ban >>
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