A ban on a ban

Pondering plastic: New bill challenges Moab’s bag ban

Local stores and consumers have adapted well to Moab’s plastic bag ban that went into effect Jan. 1, but state lawmakers are looking at a bill that could prohibit cities from enacting such bans.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

Moab only recently implemented its plastic bag ban, but a new bill could soon bring that restriction out of compliance with state code. The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that would prevent cities from regulating “auxiliary containers,” including plastic bags.

Park City led the way in Utah, enacting the state’s first bag ban in 2017 for stores that exceed 12,000 square feet. Moab followed suit last year with an ordinance that restricts all businesses from providing single-use plastic bags less than 2.25 mils (0.00225 inches) thick at the point of sale. Logan and Salt Lake City are considering similar regulations. Now, the Container Regulation Act, or HB 320, is targeting those bans.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said laws that regulate or impose fees on containers hurt businesses. He said bans like Moab’s result in an undue burden and expense for retailers and that companies should be able to decide what containers they offer customers. “I like companies like Trader Joe’s that

McKell’s bill would eliminate the two bans already in place and prevent municipalities from enacting regulations on any types of containers, regardless of material.

On Monday, Feb. 25, the bill passed through the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee with a favorable recommendation after a 6-4 vote. It will now move to the House floor for a full vote. The two representatives with Moab in their districts, Christine Watkins, R-Price, and Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, sit on that committee. They both voted in opposition of recommending the bill.

Watkins also proposed an amendment that would preserve previously enacted local ordinances. Since Moab’s bag ban took effect on Jan. 1, it could remain on the books if the amendment passes. According to a Fox13 article, the amendment was tabled.

Joel Linares, Moab’s assistant city manager, said the city hopes to be exempted from HB 320. Regardless, the bill is still representative of a “broader issue of government overreach” and fits the pattern of state lawmakers taking control away from municipalities, Linares said.

Linares said local response to the bag ban has been “overwhelmingly positive” and “by far, a majority of residents have been supportive.” Some at the city worried there would be public outcry against the bag ban like what happened with the proposal to make recycling mandatory for residents, but so far that has not been the case at all, Linares noted.

Rosemarie Russo, Moab’s sustainability director, also characterized the overall response to the ban as positive. She said there have been no compliance issues so far. Businesses can be hit with a fine if they fail to comply, but not even a written warning that would need to precede a fine has been issued by the city, Russo said. She said there was some concern among a few businesses about what to do with bags already in stock, but the city allowed those businesses to run through their pre-existing bag supply without penalty.

Another publication recently quoted Russo saying Moab spends $30,000 to $40,000 a year collecting errant bags. However, that reporting was erroneous. Russo told The Times-Independent that number came from Fort Collins, Colorado, where she worked before coming to Moab. Russo said there is not an estimate for how much Moab spent on cleanup of plastic bags before the ban because the city outsources its waste management.

In addition to deregulating businesses, supporters of the bill argued in favor of creating more statewide consistency. “For our retailers, it presents a challenge when each community does its own thing,” said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association.

Speaking from her experience as a lawyer working in Colorado, Russo said cities in that state have more local control when it comes to issues like banning plastic bags. Unlike Utah, Colorado is fully a home rule state, which grants municipalities more authority. Russo said she didn’t hear any complaints from retailers about inconsistency in regulations, but that could be because many cities in Colorado have bans in place or because retailers are used to states like Hawaii or California that have statewide bans.

Whether they’re found tangled in trees or in the throats of dead sea turtles, the environmental impacts of plastic bags are well documented. In the ordinance that bans disposable plastic bags, the City of Moab cites the adverse impact on wildlife and water quality as a major reason for the restriction. It is typically not economically viable to recycle plastic bags because they don’t generate revenue. If bags even make it to a landfill, they don’t biodegrade, and they are often swept away by wind to become litter anyway.

One lobbyist who spoke before the House committee disputed the seriousness of the plastic bag problem. Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, told lawmakers that plastic bags are recyclable and members of his organization “recycle hundreds of pounds of plastic film every year.” He cited a study by Quebec’s recycling authority that found 80 percent of disposable bags distributed in that province are reused. “That reuse makes plastic bags the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout counter,” Seaholm said.

While lobbyists may debate the environmental costs of plastic bags, the visual impact is undeniable. For towns like Moab and Park City, with economies that rely on attracting visitors with beautiful landscapes, that may be enough justification for regulations. Though Moab’s ban is sitting fine with residents, state lawmakers might not agree.