PROVO — After researching the effects single-use plastic bags can have both environmentally and economically, Brigham Young University junior Annie Ayre decided she wanted to do something about it.
Ayre, her husband and her friend Maddie Healy have worked to interview local landfill owners, recycling managers and grocery store managers to get an idea of the impact single-use plastic grocery bags have in Provo specifically.
After writing up a proposal for a fee on single-use plastic bags, Ayre is currently reaching out to Provo City Council members with the end goal of proposing a plastic bag fee in Provo.
Ayre’s first choice would be to work with council members and grocery stores to see if stores would impose a fee themselves. But some stores, particularly chain stores, may not have the ability to implement such a fee at just one location. So if that’s not doable, Ayre hopes to have the city initiate a ten-cent fee per plastic bag in grocery stores.
“We are going to have a board with some city council members and some store owners work together first and see if they can come up with something that’s store-initiated,” Ayre said. “I think people in Provo would like that more than government coming in.”
Whether that proposal will come soon or after a new council takes over next year is yet to be seen.
She’s also presented the proposal to the Provo Sustainability and Natural Resources Committee. Though the committee is supportive of the idea, according to committee chair Don Jarvis, the committee only makes recommendations to the city council and does not make any decisions. Jarvis said he recommended Ayre talk individually with city council members to see what an ordinance might look like.
“Plastic bags seem to be free, but their costs are hidden in our grocery costs and garbage and recycling fees,” Jarvis said. “They jam recycling equipment and many blow around, polluting our land and water. A small fee will reduce bag use but allow those who want bags to get them. Many countries and cities, and some states have had good results from such modest fees.”
Currently, the only cities in Utah to ban plastic bags are Moab and Park City. California, New York and Hawaii all have bans on a statewide basis.
According to Ayre’s proposal, about 940 million plastic bags are used in Utah each year, with about one percent of those getting recycled. The rest end up in landfills, taking hundreds of years to decompose.
And, according to Ayre’s research, the negative economic effect plastic bags have on cities is another reason she believes a fee would be beneficial.
Local landfills and recycling facilities spend about $1.5 million each year for maintenance and litter control, according to Ayre’s proposal. About 80 percent of that cost comes from plastic bags. Of that $1.5 million, approximately $322,000 can be attributed to Provo’s trash.
“We want to help decrease this amount that Provo citizens pay to have a trash can and recycling,” the proposal says. “We are confident that Provo’s citizens would also want to decrease this massive amount of money.”
One grocery store she spoke with told Ayre that it spends up to $30,000 per year on plastic bags.
Ayre said, overall, Walmart, Target and Smith’s already have initiatives to promote reusable bags, and five out of the six major grocery stores she spoke with said they would start phasing away from plastic if they were unified in the effort with other stores.
Ayre said she believes a fee is the best option. While education is an important part of decreasing plastic consumption in Provo, Ayre said it’s not enough to significantly decrease Provo’s plastic bag consumption.
“Multiple studies regarding the plastic bag taxes have shown that implementing a tax is an extremely successful way to decrease plastic bag consumption,” the proposal said.
The solution, according to the proposal, would be to charge 10 cents city wide for a plastic bag. Half the tax would go to education, including educating the public on how to recycle and what to recycle, as well as implementing education at grocery stores.
Ayre says education about recycling is a critical piece of the puzzle, since one of the issues is that people try to recycle plastic bags, which typically can only be recycled at a local grocery store. These bags then often gum up equipment at landfills and recycling facilities.
The other half would go into a fund to help make Provo more sustainable.
Provo city councilman George Handley said he has had concerns about plastic bags himself, and thinks it’s a conversation the city needs to have. He’s planning on sponsoring some kind of ordinance on the topic, though he said he’s not sure when the right time to have the conversation is.
“I want to have that conversation and find out where citizens and the city council is on the issue,” Handley said. “I don’t pretend to have all the answers yet.”
While Handley said he does plan to sponsor some type of ordinance for the council, he said he’s not committed to any specific time frame or any particular version of legislation.
“We know there are lots of problems with awareness about waste and recycling generally,” Handley said. “If the only thing that comes out of this is much greater awareness in the city about wastefulness, and a commitment to be better, then that’s a positive.”
In the meantime, Ayre said she wants people to know they can make a difference with small actions, like appropriately recycling plastic bags at their local grocery store, and taking care to only recycle accepted items with their local recycling company.
“I want people to understand that earth stewardship, being responsible for what you throw away and the outdoors is something I think everyone should care about despite your political party,” Ayre said.