Students pursue plastic bag tax in Provo

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From left: Halli Bowman, Zach Clement, Annie Hayward and Madison Healy use reusable bags to shop in a Provo grocery store. All students are members of BYU’s Earth Stewardship Club, which is campaigning for a plastic bag tax in Provo. (Emma Willes)

Utah native Annie Hayward has always enjoyed the outdoors. It wasn’t until a year ago following a discussion with her husband that her perspective on the earth dramatically changed.

The discussion started when Hayward’s husband shared his insights from his biology class, saying, “The earth gives so much to us, and we never give anything back.” Hayward and her husband set a goal that day to be more conscious about protecting the environment, including by taking reusable bags to the grocery store.

Hayward began researching environmental issues pertinent to the Provo area, specifically those dealing with plastic bags, when she came across facts and statistics she called “nuts.” Research collected by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, states Utahns use around 940 million plastic bags each year.

She also discovered Utah, along with states like Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming, doesn’t recycle plastic bags because they get caught in the recycling machine gears, according to Rocky Mountain Recycling Vice President Larry Gibbons and Provo Sanitation Manager Bryce Rolph.

Hayward thought a possible solution could be a tax on plastic bags in Provo, an idea she pitched to the Earth Stewardship Club, BYU’s environmental club. The group was enthusiastic to help and started the campaign Bag Responsibly to encourage local government to implement a plastic bag tax.

The club plans to present its idea for taxing plastic bags to Provo City Council in the spring or summer, Hayward said.

Currently, the club is trying to raise awareness about plastic bags’ effects on the environment and how taxing plastic bags could aid in their eventual ban by gaining community support.

“It’s tough,” Hayward said. “I feel like all of my friends that are my age are like, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome,’ but older generations­ — I think that’s going to be the harder one.”

Hayward said the club is in contact with George Handley, a Provo City Council member who is highly supportive of their efforts and the introduction of a plastic bag tax.

Because the Earth Stewardship Club is a student-run club with limited resources, Hayward has turned to other students who have used their various skills to push the campaign forward.

Rachel Lopez is a sophomore studying business at BYU and member of the Earth Stewardship Club. She currently does marketing work for a family cabinetry business, which she said is counterintuitive with an environmental initiative since the company is cutting down trees. However, she said she feels a sense of responsibility to give back.

“Something my dad always taught me was you have to be responsible, so if we want to continue our business, we have to look for ways to be sustainable and to give back,” Lopez said. “I have always seen protecting the earth as an economic benefit as well.”

Lopez said grocery stores that provide plastic bags are an obstacle with this issue. A good way to get stores on board with the initiative will be by educating them, she said, and she is currently working on a paper she hopes will do exactly that.

Reusable bags act as an alternative to plastic bags. (Emma Willes)

Plastic bags are not free for retailers. Retailers pay for bags and pass the cost to consumers. According to the Conservation Law Foundation, the plastic bag industry collects $4 billion each year in profits from U.S. retailers. If a plastic bag tax were implemented, it could lead consumers to buy reusable bags, saving both the consumer and the store money.

Madison Healy, a junior studying biology who is planning to study environmental law, said she is helping the club with the legal aspects of taxing plastic bags in Provo. Additionally, she knows members of the Provo Sustainability and Natural Resources Committee who club members were able to meet with on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

“We were really looking for their feedback because a lot of them have been residents of Provo their entire life. We wanted to see what their insights were, what they thought, whether or not they thought it would be passed,” Healy said. “We were able to get good feedback from them.”

Healy said the committee was enthusiastic about the club’s efforts; however, committee members mentioned that realistically this is something that might not happen for a long time.

The only two cities in Utah with a plastic bag ban are Park City and Moab. Logan is currently considering its own ban.

“I feel like people in Park City care a lot about skiing, and they are seeing the direct effects of climate change there in their community,” Healy said. “I feel like people here can easily be blinded to that, and they can just say, ‘Really, it’s not that big of a deal.'”

Healy said club members will need to obtain four of the seven council members’ votes to pass the plastic bag tax in Provo.

A tax on plastic bags could range anywhere from 25 to 50 cents, Healy said. The city will decide the logistics of where the money will go if the tax passes.

While taxing bags does not solve the issue, it does create a conversation about the efforts the city is taking to be more environmentally conscious. Healy said once a community recognizes and starts talking about an issue, it’s more likely to be open to changes necessary to fix it.

HB320, sponsored by Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, in the Utah Legislature, would prohibit cities from regulating or charging fees for plastic bags and containers. The bill passed the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Feb. 25 but was put on hold by the House March 1.

McKell has publicly stated the bill’s aim is to achieve marketplace consistency. He is concerned some cities like Park City and Moab choose to ban plastic bags while others may choose to charge a fee and some do nothing.

All of those interviewed agreed that even if they are unsuccessful in passing a plastic bag tax in Provo, the process of pursuing it will at least raise awareness and call attention to the issue.

Members of the club started a petition seeking community support in favor of the Provo plastic bag tax.

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