City’s decision is in the bag decision is in the bag

By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, the City of Moab will no longer allow businesses to distribute disposable plastic bags to customers. At their regular meeting on Sept. 10, the Moab City Council voted unanimously to adopt Ordinance 2018-17, which at the beginning of next year officially prohibits single-use carryout plastic bags.

The ordinance defines disposable plastic sacks as bags “made from either non-compostable plastic or compostable plastic that is less than 2.25 millimeters in thickness… which is provided by a vendor to a customer at the point of sale for the purpose of transporting goods or merchandise.” A number of exceptions, including bags used at pharmacies, bags for packaging bulk item, and bags intended for food storage or garbage, are made in the ordinance.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said the delay between the passage of the ordinance and the date it takes effect “will give us time to really do good outreach to vendors in the community to make sure nobody is caught off guard as there is a fine if somebody violates this ordinance.” She added, “I feel good about the fine structure.” Should the city manager or the person tasked with enforcing the ban determine a violation of the ordinance has occurred, the owner or manager of the offending store will be issued a written warning. Following the written warning, the store will have at least 30 days to address the violation. If the warning is not heeded, then a fine not exceeding $250 will be imposed. A fine up to $500 will be imposed for the second and each subsequent violation within one year. With proof of three or more violations within a single year, the city may obtain civil injunctive relief.

Council Member Rani Derasary noted another town that adopted a similar ban gave stores only 45 days to comply, so setting the date at Jan. 1 is comparably generous. Derasary also sought to clarify the city’s plan to educate the public about the ban. City spokesperson Lisa Church said the council will host a town hall on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. to answer public questions about the ban and other issues. The meeting will likely be held at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center, depending on the venue’s availability. Church’s communication plan includes an advertising campaign that will entail sending informational postcards to local retailers, publishing ads to educate the general public and issuing a press release.

Council Member Mike Duncan shared his concerns about holding a town hall meeting after the ban is passed rather than before. He asked if any of the other council members had “heard any serious objections from people.” Mayor Niehaus claimed she had not, and the rest of the council agreed. Notably, during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting, three Moab residents expressed their support for the ban. Moab Solutions founder Sara Melnicoff said, “It’s a huge step in the right direction and the whole community supports it that I know of.” She added she is working with Wabi Sabi to provide alternative bags at certain locations. No one present at the meeting voiced any opposition.

Derasary explained how the ban fits the city’s vision. “Moab has a long history of taking pride in being first… we were the first in terms of green power,” she said. Leading the way in environmental protection is an important part of Moab’s character, argued Derasary. She pointed out how the plastic bag ban aligns with the values set out in the city’s sustainability plan and general plan that both emphasize preserving natural resources, particularly through minimizing solid waste and maximizing landfill lifespan.

Mayor Niehaus asked city attorney Chris McAnany if there are any legal concerns associated with the ban. McAnany said the council has the authority to regulate businesses and solid waste, and “this ordinance is squarely focused on both.” He said he is unable to guarantee someone would not take legal action to challenge the ordinance, but it would be a surprising occurrence.

Council Member Kalen Jones moved to vote on the ordinance and Karen Guzman-Newton seconded the motion. Before the vote, Jones mentioned how the solid waste special service district struggles with “trash pickup from wind-blown debris” and plastic shopping bags are a significant contributor to that problem. He also noted how City Market’s parent company Kroger has already committed to phasing out plastic bags. “I think Moab can be part of that wave,” Jones said. “We’re leaders on this.” Seeing no further discussion, Niehaus called for a vote and all five council members voted in affirmation.