Paper or plastic? Either answer could cost you under a new bill in the Utah legislature

Posted at 3:51 PM, Dec 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-26 20:50:36-05

TAYLORSVILLE, Utah -- Paper or plastic?

We've all been asked that question at the grocery store checkout line. Now, either answer could cost you under a bill being proposed in the 2018 legislative session.

Reusable bags are sold at a checkout inside a Taylorsville Harmons store. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, is bringing back a bill that would charge 10 cents per paper or plastic bag handed out at retail stores. In a recent interview with FOX 13, Sen. Iwamoto said her bill would push people to remember to bring reusable bags, avoid litter and try to extend the life of local landfills that are feeling the crush of so many plastic bags.

"Usually they're used one time and thrown away," she said.

Research she's collected shows Utahns throw away an average of 940 million plastic shopping bags annually (across the nation, it's 100 billion). It can take as much as 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose and only one to three percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.

"They are so light and they aren't recyclable. You can't put them in the recycle bin," Sen. Iwamoto said. "People think you can, but then the problem is with that, the recycling companies have to stop the machines every day because it clogs the machines."

Paper bags actually aren't much better, also having degradation problems in landfills, she said, as well has expending more resources to create. She said it also creates methane gas in landfills.

Sen. Iwamoto has carved out exemptions in her proposed legislation, including produce and meat bags and dry cleaning (you could also reuse the plastic bags and not face another fee).

The bill could also generate a lot of money. One fiscal projection for a prior version of the bill said the state could collect as much as $26 million in one year for a dime a bag fee. (The senator said she believed it would be less than that because consumer behavior would rapidly change.) Any fees collected would go back to retailers, recyclers and landfills.

A sign in the parking lot of a Taylorsville Harmons grocery store encourages shoppers to bring reusable bags. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Other states have passed fees or all-out bag bans. Retailers have also taken steps to deal with disposable bags, which can be costly to order. Some offer nickel discounts if customers bring reusable bags. Others, like Utah grocery store chain Harmons, have specialized recycle bins in stores for plastic grocery bags and signs in the parking lot urging customers to remember reusable bags.

A Harmons spokeswoman told FOX 13 it was planning to phase out plastic bags over time for sustainability reasons. Their newer stores don't even stock plastic bags.

Shoppers had mixed reaction to the proposed legislation.

"It's definitely something I can see would benefit Utah not having all these extra paper and plastic in the landfill. But at the same time, it can rack up for a large grocery trip," Tanner Maass said, motioning to what would be about $1.50 worth of plastic bags in his grocery cart.

Rocky Pearce had the grocery clerk use his half-dozen reusable bags for his purchases.

"Doesn't bother me," he said of any fee. "But I like these bags anyway, so it's good."

Sen. Iwamoto said she believed Utahns would get behind the bill and change their behavior, remembering reusable bags. She has gathered support from landfills and recyclers going into the 2018 legislative session.

"It's necessary as far as for our environment," she said. "But also something I've had a lot of interest from my constituency."