Summit County Council, spurred by middle-schoolers, considers plastic bag ban
The crowd at Wednesday’s Summit County Council meeting was younger than usual, bolstered by the presence of several middle-schoolers who were there to advocate for the county to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags.
Council Chair Roger Armstrong thanked the youngsters for starting a conversation, acknowledging they’d be the ones to “inherit this mess we created.”
“You guys have the greatest ability to move the needle because a child nagging a parent about doing the right thing is like getting tiny sharp elbows on a regular basis,” Armstrong said with a smile. “We appreciate you guys engaging this issue.”
Sonja Preston, now in sixth grade at Ecker Hill Middle School, was in the audience along with some of her classmates. She wrote in an email the group, including classmates Caroline Keagy, Shiva Minter and Dax Marshall, had advocated for the ban since February, writing letters, addressing the Council and surveying shoppers.
It was the first time the issue had come before the County Council as an agenda item, though it had heard from the young advocates on previous occasions. The Council did not take any action.
Council Vice-Chair Doug Clyde said it was great to see kids in the audience and politically active.
“Their interest in protecting the environment – to us thats an important issue,” he said. “We make change in this world by informing our children and getting them to think about things differently.”
Park City banned plastic bags in 2017, a move that affected three large stores in the city. Attempts in the two most recent state legislative sessions to prohibit municipalities from taking such an action have failed.
Tim Loveday, Summit County’s solid waste superintendent, joined Deputy County Manager Janna Young to make a presentation about the nuances of the issue, ultimately asking the councilors to hone in on questions like what the end goal is, which businesses would be affected and what would be done about paper bags.
Loveday described the pros and cons of banning plastic bags, including the relatively small amount of space they take up in the landfill and the harmful effects of a switchover to paper bags.
He also pushed back on some of the proposed environmental benefits, claiming paper bags use more water to produce, are made from trees and release at least as much greenhouse gases as plastic bags do while decomposing.
Plus, he said, if plastic bags are replaced by paper, it would increase bag-disposal costs at the landfill sevenfold.
He acknowledged the problem of plastics in the ocean, describing how some of his friends in the sailing community have told him they can’t cross directly from Hawaii back to the mainland because they can’t risk running into plastics along the way.
But he said 95 percent of the plastic in the world’s oceans come from 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia and two in Africa. He appeared to be citing a 2017 study that found that 95 percent of the river-borne plastics come from those 10 rivers, not the total amount of plastics in the world’s oceans.
“My focus is diversion; (this) doesn’t play into that,” Loveday said. “(Plastic bags) account for less than 0.1 percent of all waste in Three Mile Landfill.”
He called the issue an emotional and political one rather than one based on science.
“I remember when we left paper bags to go to plastic, we were going to save the world that way,” he said. “There’s no simple solution, (that’s) the bottom line.”
Clyde acknowledged the move might be a popular one, but he said the Council didn’t want to make major changes in how the county is managed based on public perception. He agreed with Loveday that any solution would likely have to include both paper and plastic bags.
Armstrong concurred, saying a more impactful way to address waste issues would be to tackle cardboard recycling, something Loveday is working on with a new pilot program.
There are also political factors to consider. Park City’s ban was limited to stores of a certain square footage, but the county includes big-box stores like Home Depot and Walmart, and any ban would likely include them.
Those stores might bring another level of lobbying pressure to the state Legislature to outlaw such bans, Armstrong noted, coupling with the already-formidable petroleum industry, which manufactures plastic bags.
There is also pressure from groups like the NAACP and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which argue the fees disproportionately affect low-income households and create an undue burden on business owners.
Still, single-use plastic bags continue to proliferate, and Councilors and staffers seemed to agree on the goal of getting consumers to use fewer of them and to bring reusable bags to stores.
In a letter to the editor published in The Park Record in May, Preston wrote that we can all do small things to help prevent this environmental crisis, like using reusable water bottles and shopping bags.
“As Margaret Mead said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of dedicated citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,’” the sixth-grader wrote.
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