SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah legislator wants to dispose of a huge problem at landfills throughout the state with passage of a law that calls for a 10-cent fee on single-use paper and plastic bags.
The revenue generated from SB196 by Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, would be divvied up among state and local governments to educate consumers on reusable bags, provide greater recycling access and help manage the landfill problems caused by the disposable bags by reducing the number used and discarded.
Iwamoto's bill was sent to the Senate Business and Labor Committee this week and will be heard at 5 p.m. Thursday. Iwamota said her proposal to levy a fee or tax on disposable bags is not novel, even if it is controversial with some shoppers. Cities, she said, are indicating they want to go ahead with their own fees or prohibitions with merchants favoring something more uniform.
"If this doesn't pass, I know there will be municipalities trying to do it."
A 2015 law in California that banned plastic bags outright was repealed last November by referendum, but multiple cities across the state adopted their own ordinances imposing a 10-cent fee on plastic bags. Counties in Hawaii have instituted bans or taxes and the issue has been on the table in New York and New Jersey. Other countries, like Ireland, began assessing a fee on plastic bags in 2002 — the equivalent of 19 cents — and upped it to as high as 27 cents a decade ago.
Public pushback to a disposal fee or ban has caused political leaders to rethink a fee or outright ban, but many stores already provide their own in-house bags to keep customers tuned into the issue coming back.
Salt Lake area shoppers were divided Wednesday. Some said the fee was too high or that it should only be charged for plastic bags. Others supported the nudge to become more environmentally conscious.
Tammy Kesler said she got into the habit of bringing reusable bags to the store after visiting her sons. They live in California, where some stores charge 10 cents minimum for paper and plastic bags. “I went to Nordstrom’s, I went to Target, and it’s like 10, 15 cents a bag,” Kesler said.
Kesler said she owns dozens of reusable bags in different colors and designs “so it’s fun when you shop.” She pulled a paisley bag out of her purse to demonstrate how it folds neatly into a wallet-sized packet.
But Angie Bingham, a fellow shopper at Harmon’s City Creek location, called the idea “ridiculous.” “That’s part of going to the store,” Bingham said.
“It should be built into the store’s prices.” Bingham said she tries to use reusable bags but often forgets to bring them. “Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to run to the store.”
Iwamoto said something has to be done — and her bill is more about education than anything.
"It is not a ban, it is an incentive program. It is cost avoidance," she said. "You don't have to pay anything if you don't want to. We're trying to get people to change their habits, because we pay for this whether we're thinking about it or not at the store."
In her research, she found that Utah residents dispose of 940 million plastic bags each year. Although stores may include on-site recycling bins to encourage their disposal and reuse, only a small fraction — 1 to 3 percent — end up getting recycled. The rest go the landfill, where they float in the wind and create litter for reluctant neighbors.
There's a 20-foot fence at the Salt Lake Valley Landfill to corral the blow-away bags, which if even buried properly take 1,000 years to decompose.
Plastic bags have even become a problem at material handling facilities because they get caught in the machinery designed to separate rigid products such as cans, bottles and paper. Rocky Mountain Recycling estimates that up to 30 percent of its labor costs come from its workers having to remove the plastic bags that get caught up in their sorting machines.
Reuseit.com estimates about a million bags are used each minute, with the United States going through 100 billion bags a year at a cost of $4 million.
Iwamoto's bill does not apply to pharmaceutical bags for prescriptions, laundry bags or bags used by nonprofits to carry and deliver food. It also exempts bags used in stores for bulk purchase and bags that are used to wrap frozen food, meat or fish, and multiple other uses.
A portion of the fee would go to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to use in a retail bag reduction effort that includes promotion of recycling and alternatives to disposable bags.