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Beyond Plastic Bag Bans: Unintended Consequences, Other Forms Of Waste Reduction

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Plastic bags. We use them all the time. We pack our groceries in them and receive our local Chinese take-out in them. Plastic bags are everywhere. According to the Wall Street Journal, 100 billion plastic bags are used in the United States each year. 

With all of this plastic bag consumption comes concerns about how the waste impacts the environment. Because of this, many cities, states and even counties have banned them. Locally, former Logan city council member Herm Olsen has been working to implement a ban in Logan and Cache County. 

“Together we need to step up our efforts to eliminate single-use plastic bags. It’s an opportunity for merchants to step forward and make a statement through their marketing and merchandising efforts to eliminate single-use plastic bags,” Olsen said at a Logan City Council Meeting in December. 

At this meeting, Logan city officials voted to create a plastic bag management plan that would require business owners to choose between not using single-use plastic bags or charging the customer for the bag. 

The plan was to be implemented in April, but in February the council voted to delay the start date to July. According to Logan Mayor Holly Daines, the council received feedback from the solid waste advisory board that would require more time to implement. 

The solid waste advisory board is made up of a variety of local elected officials and helped draft a plan for plastic reduction across Cache County. 

“They were going through the process with their communities and their constituents and trying to get some general consensus on the waste management plan,” Daines said. “And they felt like Council, passing the ban just for Logan, maybe jumped the gun a little bit and it will be much more effective if we can get people countywide to join us and so it's the same ordinance for everyone. “

Passionate environmentalists are concerned this delay is an effort to stonewall the plastic management plan. Mayor Jeff Young of Richmond, on behalf of the solid waste advisory board, said they are still actively participating in this issue. He said the goal of future board discussions is to formalize the details and see what kind of countywide compromise can be made. 

“So it's not,the ban side of getting everything they want,” Young said, “but it's definitely not the far rural side getting what they want. So we're trying to reach a reasonable option that can work.”

Young said the main concern members of the board and business owners in the county have, is that business will be disproportionately affected based on both their location in the county and their size. For example, if bags are only banned in Logan, would that drive shoppers to other parts of the county where bags were available at no additional cost?

William Shughart, an economics professor at Utah State University, shared this concern. 

“Walmart certainly can bear the cost,” Shughart said. “But small businesses, particularly those that handle food, are going to be hit with an increase in cost for the customers that want to take food out of the store. And some of those costs will be passed on to consumers, some will fall on the employees, in the form of lower wages. So people that support the ban have not thought about the trade-offs that must be made.”

However, Edwin Stafford, a marketing professor at USU and a renewable energy entrepreneur, has a different perspective. He is worried about the large amount of waste people dispose of each year and believes if this is not reduced, people will pay for it in their taxes.

“We've got these inexpensive landfills that are run by governments,” Stafford said. “They're all taxpayer subsidized. And so the challenge we have is that most businesses know that putting some kind of plastic out in the world, some government landfill out there is going to receive it, and they don't have to think about it. But because we rely so much on the government to take care of all of our garbage it creates disincentives for us to figure out how to recycle or how to reuse these resources. Landfills are not are not very profitable kinds of enterprises for governments to get into. You can't tax a landfill.”

And when it comes to reusable bags, Stafford said it’s important to be aware that these bags have their own consequences. 

According to a study conducted in the U.K., a consumer has to use a cotton bag 131 times and a paper bag three times to be more ecologically friendly than a single-use plastic bag. 

Plastic bags aren’t the only items Stafford is concerned about filling up landfill space. He said that other disposables, such as straws, water bottles, paper and Styrofoam dishes, are used without much thought of where they will end up. 

Making a difference in reducing the waste flow will require people to make changes in those areas as well. Not only would this benefit the environment Safford said, but it would likely lead to taxpayers paying less for waste disposal. 

It’s because of the complexity and the nuances of this issue that Young said he wants to make sure that whatever is done to manage plastic bags, is not done in a polarizing way. He wants the next steps to work for the county as a whole. 

“We're all here because we love our valley,” Young said. “I've met with multiple mayors, including Mayor Daines of Logan, who have really tried to bridge gaps and keep things where we can work together. And we're better as a community, if we're able to understand where each of us are at and the value that each of us have to offer in our own perspective and what we're giving. And then collectively, we can bring that together and say, this is the society that we really all want to have because we're all better for it.”