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Legislative Committee Heard Competing Measures On Regulating Plastic Bags

Utah lawmakers on Friday rejected a proposal to add a fee to plastic or paper bags in the state, and advanced a measure to prevent local governments from taking their own action to curb the use of plastic bags. 

Holladay Democractic Senator Jani Iwamoto sponsored SB192, which would add a ten cent fee on bags at the grocery store. The intent, she said, was to try to cut back on plastic bag pollution by encouraging sustainable behavior from Utah residents.

“This is an incentive," she said, "so consumers can reduce their use of retail bags, and there’s studies that confirm usage reduction by 80-90 percent through the nation, and the world… and it happens quite quickly.”

Iwamoto's bill would have split the projected $17 million raised from the fee between grocery stores - who would implement recycling and bag reuse programs - and Utah waste and recycling industries. 

Speaking in favor of Iwamoto’s bill was Mark Hoyer, executive director of the Trans-Jordan landfill in Salt Lake County. He said plastic bags, which are not recyclable in Utah, cause headaches for landfill managers and present environmental and public health problems as well. 

“They’re not recyclable in Utah," he said. "Collection is difficult and not cost effective. They become airborne even when not properly disposed of… they pose a threat…so the focus has been turning more toward reducing… turning more toward it’s source.”

But Salt Lake City activist George Chapman equated Iwamoto's bill to a tax on local consumers, and said that lawmakers should think twice before over-regulating businesses like grocery stores.

"So this is effectively a ten cent food tax and at the same time we're trying to reduce the food tax," he said. "But there are people especially on fixed income that might spend 30 percent of their income on food and all of a sudden they're going to be charged an extra ten cents for maybe one or two bucks worth of food...and that's wrong."

Taking state level action to change consumer behavior was not something members of the Senate Economic Development Committee were interested in doing. They voted 4-0 to further study Iwamoto’s bill. 

Immediately afterward in the same committee debate began on Senate Bill 218 by Roy Republican Senator Gregg Buxton. His bill would give the state the ultimate say when it comes to regulating plastic bags or other containers. The measure would effectively prohibit cities from banning plastic bags, something Park City did last year. 

Rebecca Smith, sustainability director with Ace Recycling in West Valley City opposed Buxton’s measure, saying that being able to ban the bag was important, because getting the message out that plastic bags aren’t recyclable in Utah, is difficult.

"It is very difficult to keep plastic bags out of single-stream recycling," she said. "People do think of plastic as recyclable and since there are drop off locations it's a very difficult educational challenge to explain to somebody that something that's technically recyclable cannot go in the recycling bin."

However, Matt Seaholm of the plastic industry association said that the state should step in to keep local governments from overstepping their authority. 

"When the local government is overreaching, and in...the case of a ban on a plastic product... I would argue that it is an overreach because it's infringing on individual liberty and consumer choice," he said.

In the end, that thinking won the day, and Buxton's measure advanced on a 3-0 vote. Whether or not Buxton's measure makes its way into law in the final two weeks of the legislative session, with the defeat of Sen. Iwamoto's measure, it would seem that the plastic bag is here to stay in Utah. 

At least for now.