Utah lawmakers may overrule cities’ plastic bag bans

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Single-use plastic containers create trash jams in Utah streams, like this one pictured on the Jordan River in Salt Lake City on June 2, 2018. A bill before the Utah Legislature would prohibit cities from regulating plastic bags and other “auxiliary containers.”

Plastic bags blowing around pose a problem across Utah, but the bigger issue, for some state lawmakers, is cities’ efforts to ban them.

Targeting ordinances already enacted by two left-leaning, tourism-dependent cities, HB320 would block Utah cities and counties from regulating “auxiliary containers.” Moab and Park City have banned retailers from distributing single-use plastic sacks for packaging customers’ purchases as way to reduce litter and promote the use of more durable reusable bags.

These regulations, and similar ones contemplated in much larger Logan and Salt Lake City, disrupt the marketplace and hurt businesses, sponsoring Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday.

“If you want to regulate plastic bags, let’s do it consistently and do it across the state,” Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, urged the panel, which advanced the bill on a 6-4 vote. “For our retailers, it presents a challenge when each community does its own thing.”

Several speakers Monday denounced McKell’s bill as a sop to special interests that seek to profit at the expense of communities’ ability to protect their interests and safeguard the environment.

”Communities all over the place are trying to find solutions to a mountain of garbage clogging our oceans,” said Michael Cundick of SLC Air Protectors. “We need all of our municipalities to have every tool available to deal with the problem.”

Plastic bag waste also imposes significant costs to local governments that must gather bags dispersed by wind and extricate them from sorting equipment, according to Park City Mayor Andy Beerman, whose town enacted Utah’s first bag ban in 2017.

“There is a reason cities and towns exist,” Beerman said in an interview. “It’s to deal with the unique challenges for their community.”

Three large retailers fall under Park City’s ordinance, which limits its reach to grocery stores exceeding 12,000 square feet.

Last year, Moab leaders enacted an ordinance banning all plastic bags less than 2.25 mils in thickness issued at checkout.

Both these small cities host millions of tourists who come to enjoy outdoor recreation in surrounding scenic lands.

Single-use disposable plastic bags are viewed as an environmental scourge because they get caught in tree limbs and fences, accumulate along roads and in waterways, and have been found in the throats of dead sea turtles.

But they represent a puny piece of the nation’s solid waste stream, an industry lobbyist told the committee last week, citing a handful of studies whose findings suggest plastic bags are not a serious problem.

Last year, the Legislature rejected a Democratic-sponsored bill that would have imposed a 10-cent fee on each bag provided to customers at grocery stores. It also killed a measure similar to HB320.

McKell’s latest legislation would nix city or county ordinances seeking to regulate virtually any kind of container made from any kind of material, not just plastic bags.

Americans are heavy users of such bags, each consuming nearly one a day, according to some estimates. That translates into 100 billion bags a year. They aren’t economical to recycle, they don’t biodegrade, and many sent to landfills don’t get or stay there.

But, according to Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, plastic bags represent 0.3 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste stream and 0.8 percent of the litter, at least in New Jersey.

"You will hear they are not recyclable,” Seaholm told lawmakers. “That’s not true. Our members recycle hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic film every year. We are happy to take it.”

One study by Quebec’s recycling authority, he added, found that 80 percent of disposable plastic bags distributed in that Canadian province are reused.

“That reuse makes plastic bags the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout counter,” the lobbyist said. Yet local restrictions have proliferated, bringing confusion to the marketplace. States are pushing back with measures like HB320.

“Surrounding states — Nevada, Idaho, Arizona and Colorado — all have this type of law on the books, some type of statewide uniformity,” Seaholm said.

Not so for Colorado, where many cities have enacted bans tailored to their local needs, according to Rosemarie Russo, Moab’s sustainability director.

“The cities have jurisdiction over plastic bags. The state [of Colorado] has deferred to the cities’ authority on that,” said Russo, a lawyer who worked for Fort Collins, Colo., before coming to Moab. “They have had plastic bag bans for a decade. There is no indication they are going to be overturned.”

“Our big push is to get people to reuse their bags,” she said of Moab’s ban, which took effect last month. “There haven’t been many complaints.”

By weight, plastic bags make up a small part of the waste picture, she agreed, but they have a huge visual impact. That’s important for Moab, which on a given day hosts thousands of tourists. They would be less likely to return if the town’s redrock vistas are marred by bags.

According to McKell, ordinances like Moab’s pose an undue burden and expense on retailers, who should be free to decide what bags to offer customers. Al’s Sporting Goods, the lawmaker said, expects to spend $20,000 to $30,000 to comply with Logan’s proposed ordinance.

“This is not a simple change,” McKell said. “I like companies like Trader Joe’s that use reusable bags. That’s is something companies can decide. It’s something consumers can decide.”

In the face of consumer pressure, many retailers, including Trader Joe’s, are dumping plastic bags, according to Beerman, so banning them isn’t that much of burden.

“In some ways," the mayor said, “we are just giving them cover."

Regardless of the outcome on McKell’s bill, he added, Park City Market has already decided it won’t offer plastic bags. But its customers will still have a choice that puts a price on convenience. They can bring a reusable bag or pay 10 cents for a paper one.