SALT LAKE CITY—A Utah Senator is taking a shot at reducing the state’s plastic bag waste by introducing a bill that would require stores to charge a fee for plastic bags, a practice already spreading nation and worldwide.
The bill, SB196, calls for a cost of 10 cents per bag. Bags for things like prescriptions, produce, frozen meats, chemicals, and unwrapped bakery goods would be exempt. The proceeds would be restricted to environmental causes—promoting the use of reusable bags, supplying grocery stores with bag recycling bins, and funding education about environmental responsibility.
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City is sponsoring the bill, and she calls this issue “low-hanging fruit.”
In Utah, 940 million plastic bags are disposed of annually, and only 1-3 percent are recycled, according to Ashlee Yoder, Salt Lake County Sustainability Manager.
Iwamoto says this is partly because people don’t know how to recycle retail bags (they can only be recycled in designated bins at grocery stores). Those who try often put them in their recycling bins at home, and the bags ultimately end up at the dump after costing the state $25,000-30,000 a month in labor to remove them from the recycling plant.
“We always say we want to do something for our air and our water quality. Well, this is one way to do it,” Iwamoto said.
The bill passed by a narrow 3-2 vote in the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 25.
“I know that this is probably going to be an uphill battle to get this through this legislature, but I commend you,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
Iwamoto really cares about this. Not only does she remember people who testified about her bill at committee by name, she has thought about each of their arguments and itches to respond.
George Chapman, testifying as a private citizen, called plastic bags “an American success story,” arguing that placing a fee on retail bags would hinder economic competition between stores.
“This essentially is a tax increase on food,” he said.
Iwamoto holds that, because the bill would impose the fee on all stores indiscriminately, it creates an opportunity for stores to offer rebates or other incentives, fostering competition.
As for the claim that the bill represents a food tax, Iwamoto says plastic bag costs are already imbedded in our tax system. Steering people away from single-use bags, which she hopes the fee will do, could eliminate those costs.
“It’s a cost avoidance, in my view,” she said.
Ken Burton, a student at Weber State University, also spoke against the bill at the committee. Burton described his experience living in Denmark, where stores charge anywhere between 20 and 40 cents for bags. He said that the fee didn’t deter people from using plastic bags—people would just forget to bring reusable bags and be forced to pay.
“I don’t think this is the best way to go about reducing the amount of plastic bags given out,” he said.
Iwamoto says statistics contradict Burton’s experience. Her hope with this bill is not to rake in money.
“That’s not what we’re trying to do, make people pay it,” she said. “We really want them to avoid having to pay that cost, but if they do, it goes to a worthy cause at least,” she said.
Iwamoto, who has lived with plastic bag bans in other states, says she “was amazed how [her] habits change overnight.”
Seattle enacted a plastic bag ban in July 2012. Steven Wright, a Seattle resident, says he has seen the culture around him change since the ban.
“It was a very brief inconvenience until I learned to change my individual habits,” Wright said.
Now, Wright has a system. He keeps reusable bags in his car and has found them to be much sturdier anyway than plastic or paper bags. He says everyone around him uses their own bags, too.
“It’s like an argument of why do we even have this argument,” he said.