Utah divided in plastic bag debate

A shopper holds reusable bags full of vegetables, which act as an alternative to plastic bags. (Emma Willes)

Consumers may not notice anything different from other Utah grocers when walking into Fresh Market in Park City. The difference is subtle but significant: there are no single-use grocery bags, only reusable options available for purchase.

The state of Utah, like much of the U.S., remains divided on the issue of plastic bags.

The state of New York recently followed California’s lead and banned plastic bags statewide. Likewise, hundreds of cities and counties across the nation have created their own local bans, including Utah’s own Park City and Moab.

Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsored HB320 during this year’s legislative session. The bill would have prohibited plastic bag fees and bans across the state. Though HB320 didn’t pass, it created conversations throughout the state about the future of plastic bags in Utah.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake, has sponsored several bills in recent years with exactly the opposite intent. The most recent of which, SB192 in 2018, would have charged a 10-cent fee for plastic and paper retail bags. It did not pass, but she has continued to look for solutions. “[The fee] would be an incentive for consumers to reduce their use of retail bags,” she said. “There are studies that show a reduction of 85-90% across the nation in places where those fees are imposed. We choose as lawmakers that littering should be fined, and this is also littering.” She also said the money raised from the fee would have been given directly to Utah landfills.

Megan Adamson, a BYU student from California, said her parents have had some frustrations with the bag fees in their community, but that she ultimately thinks it has been a positive policy. Most places charge 10 cents for a bag, she said.

“I think it has helped,” she said. “The new bags that you have to pay for last a long time. It would probably be a good thing in Utah. It has forced my parents to be better about reusing bags.”

Adamson said there are also stores in California that will gift 10 cents of store credit for each reusable bag that customers bring themselves. However, she said there are still downfalls to the policy. “A lot of cashiers don’t bag your groceries or put them into the cart for you, so you pay the same amount for groceries, but you get less of a service,” Adamson said. “Also, the bags that you pay for are a thicker plastic, and would definitely take longer to deteriorate if they are thrown away.”

Adamson isn’t the only BYU student aware of the plastic problem. BYU’s environmental club, the Earth Stewardship Club, has started a petition to encourage the Provo City Council to implement a plastic bag tax and create more sustainable options, The Daily Universe reported in March. The petition, called “Bag Responsibly,” currently has 695 signatures with a goal of 1,000. According to the petition website, its mission is, “to create a sustainable solution to this problem in Provo by encouraging the use of reusable bags and eliminating the use of single-use plastic bags.”

However, research done at the University of Sydney and reported by National Public Radio backs up Adamson’s previous suspicions. This research showed that bag bans may be hurting more than helping because the thicker bags that stores have available for purchase are worse for the environment, and other options are worse than the traditional plastic bags as well.

The research showed that plastic trash bag sales have skyrocketed in places where single-use grocery bags are banned because consumers would typically reuse their grocery bags to line trash cans or pick up dog waste. It also showed that reusable fabric tote bags and paper grocery bags are worse for the environment than the thin plastic because of the processing required to make them. They haven’t had as much of an impact yet, but that is because there are still far greater amounts of plastic being used in comparison.

Matt Seaholm, Executive Director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said many claims about the problems that plastic bags cause are not backed up by research. “The Environmental Protection Agency says that plastic bags make up only 0.3% of municipal solid waste in the United States, and they almost always come reused, like as a trash can liner,” Seaholm said. “Nearly 80% of plastic bags are reused in some way, shape or form. That single reuse makes them the most environmentally-friendly option at the checkout counter.”

McKell said his primary goal with HB320 was to create uniformity across the state. “There are two things I’m worried about: consistency in the market and the impact on business and industry,” he said. “The cost and the burden on businesses of adjusting to all these differing policies has been significant.” He believes consistent policy across the state would help retailers, instead of leaving the decision up to each community.

Dave Davis, the Utah Retail Merchants Association president, agreed that a policy promoting consistency would help the Utah retail community. He said it doesn’t matter to retailers whether bags are regulated or not, but they’d prefer one uniform policy statewide.

“We want consistency,” Davis said. “It poses a bit of a challenge for our retailers when every community is doing their own thing with plastic bags. If state legislators feel like they want to regulate plastic bags, we would just urge them to do it consistently across the state, so that retailers can simply comply with that one policy in all the different communities they cater to.”

Earlier this year, the municipal council in Logan also had a plastic bag ban up for vote, but it was tabled for 6 months because council members wanted to conduct research to make a more informed decision, reported The Herald Journal.

Utah remains divided on this nuanced issue, and for now, the decision of whether to ban or let be will remain up to the cities and counties.

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