SALT LAKE CITY — It is an exercise in ultimate irony that happens each weekday at the Salt Lake Valley Landfill.
A full-time employee escorts a crew of trustees from the local jail as they make their way past mounds of trash — to pick up litter.
Ashlee Yoder, the recycling coordinator for the county, has her office at the landfill and says it has the responsibility and regulatory requirement to be a good steward and a good neighbor — to corral the litter that may become airborne and wind up in someone's yard or across the way at a state waterfowl refuge.
"We cannot let the stuff blow out of the landfill and become a nuisance to the general public," she said. "And the biggest nuisance we have is plastic bags."
According to reuseit.com, about 1 million plastic bags are used every minute, with the United States going through 100 billion plastic bags a year at a cost of $4 billion. It's estimated each bag will take up to a 1,000 years to degrade, and only .5 percent to 3 percent end up recycled.
A number of cities, mostly in the western United States and especially in California, have implemented some sort of restrictions that relate to single-use plastic bags — including outright bans or levying a tax or fee per bag used. Some of the restrictions may only apply to large retailers, while in some cities it is a blanket prohibition.
Elsewhere around the world, entire countries such as Italy, Rwanda, South Africa and Tanzania have strict bans and other countries such as Ireland impose stiff taxes — 33 cents per bag. A New York Times story said usage of the bags in Ireland dropped by 90 percent and use of the bags are often viewed as a social misstep. Some countries like South Africa go after the merchants with fines and even jail time — 10 years is the sentence for a retailer caught handing out a thin plastic bag.
No such bans exist in Utah, even though the problem is just as prevalent.
Yoder and others like her who shun the bags say it is a matter of mindset and convenience.
"We are sort of a victim of our own success," Yoder said. "We are lucky to live close to a landfill that is convenient for people and we've managed it so we have space."
It's not that way, she points out, in places like California where population growth — and its accompanying garbage — has resulted in landfill space transforming into a precious commodity.
"Space is at a premium. It is so much more expensive to dispose of garbage there — you may pay $100 a month for a small garbage container to be picked up. What we pay here is nothing compared to what some cities charge, so preserving our landfill is a pretty decent goal."
The combination of low cost and convenience makes it easy, then, for people to toss the disposable bags and other recyclable items in the trash for pick up.
"It's a good idea to recycle them of course, but the best way to get rid of them is to not use them at all," Yoder said.
There has been a shift among grocery stores and some other retailers to encourage the use of cloth bags or other reusable bags that people bring to the stores themselves.
Some big chains offer a 5 cent discount if shoppers use their own bags, but environmental scientist Sam Schroyer said the practice is often so infrequent that customers need to gently remind cashiers about the policy.
"The clerks need to be in tune with it," said Schroyer, who works for the Utah Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste.
If you ask Schroyer if plastic bags are a problem in Utah, he says all one needs to do is take a good look around.
"Drive down the road and look at the chain-link fences, look at I-15. Go up in the mountains and you'll find bags people have released. "
Alternatives are out there, but Schroyer said it is a matter of discipline and breaking the habit.
Negative press has led to a push back to the cloth bags because over time, they can become a petri dish for bacteria and other bugs. Schroyer's answer: just wash them once in a while.
Others promote biodegradable bags as the possible answer.
Dr. Frederic Scheer is the founder of Cereplast, which makes products from 100 percent biodegradable bioplastic resins, including bags for groceries and other items. He says his product will biodegrade in less than 180 days with no chemical residues.
Scheer also showcased the first biodegrable cups at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
His products solve the issue of having plastic bags in the landfill that won't degrade for 1,000 years, but they do have to be composted and use of them doesn't solve the litter problem.
He objects, too, to outright bans on plastic bags.
"It creates havoc for the consumer if you cannot offer an alternative that is viable. This is viable, but it has to be used within a real program where the product can be composted."
Some cities that have plastic bag bans also go a step further and impose a 10 cent tax on paper bags that are used. The goal is the same — to dissuade consumers from using a throw-away product that in this case takes just as much energy to produce.
Telluride, Colo., town manager Greg Clifton weathered the bag ban and bag tax that went into effect in this upscale resort community last year. He said the ban was the result of a grass-roots community effort that pushed town leaders to implement the ban, so public backlash was fairly minimal.
Some merchants did grumble, with one going so far as to put Clifton's name and office number on the store sign out front should customers have a complaint about the lack of bags.
"By and large it has been very positive but there has been a couple of naysayers or businesses who have taken issue with it. ... Not all customers like it," Clifton said. "It can be viewed as yet another annoyance in what can be seen as an expensive place to visit."
One logistical hiccup along the way was the short amount time between the ordinance's passage and when it went into effect, Clifton said. Larger grocers had thousands of the bags in their inventory and needed time to use them up.
"It would be very defeating to the spirit of the ordinance to tell people to throw away their plastic bags," Clifton said. The result was to phase those stores' compliance in over time.
The town also developed its own alternative — creating a bag with the town logo on it and a picture of Main Street.
"We worked with the lodges and the Chamber of Commerce to get these reusable bags out on the front end, placing them in hotels with a welcome to visitors. The bags themselves are made from 35 percent recyclable material — they're definitely a Telluride bag."
Insa Riepen believes shunning the disposable plastic bag is an ethical, if even economical choice to make — if one thinks of priorities.
"They are a petroleum byproduct which comes from oil. Do we want the oil for our plastic bags, or do we want the oil for driving our cars or heating our homes?"
Riepen, director of Recycle Utah in Park City, is toying with the idea of having Park City take on Moab in a bag-ban challenge, since both are tourist destinations where visitors — especially from other countries — might expect more eco-friendly practices.
"Where can we give? This is an easy give. People might grumble for a month. I'd say, 'That is the expectation in our community and we are going to be proud of that and that is as it should be."
She's confident that in Utah if people can get over their mindset, a prohibition on plastic disposable bags isn't all that outlandish or scary.
"Once that expectation is set, as it is in Ireland, as it is in Rwanda, as it is in much of the rest of the world, it will be easy to say that we can be as responsible as the Irish people, as those other people. We can say that we are willing to take that on."
• The average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in just four trips to the grocery store.
• Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse after cigarette butts.
• Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down.
• Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
• 10 percent of the plastic produced every year worldwide ends up in the ocean, 70 percent of which finds its way to the ocean floor where it will likely never degrade.