The coronavirus pandemic has put plastic-bag control efforts on hold in Cache Valley, but officials close to the issue are giving assurances the cause won’t be dropped and forgotten.
Reasons for the delay are numerous, but one obstacle stands out: Reusable shopping bags, a key component for the transition away from single-use plastic bags in stores, are believed to pose more risk than plastic bags in spreading the virus.
Most stores, in fact, have explicitly banned reusable bags as part of their COVID-19 safety measures.
“The very thing that we were promoting as a big part of the solution is now banned,” said Richmond Mayor Jeff Young, who has reviewed the bag issue extensively as chairman of the Cache County Solid Waste Advisory Board. “I actually think that we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and re-discuss stuff that we now know that we didn’t know a few months ago when we were discussing this.”
Last year, the advisory board crafted a draft plan that calls for working with the public and retailers to reduce lightweight, single-use plastic bags, which have become a growing pollution concern across the nation and world. A stark example of the pollution occurred locally over the winter and spring when heavy winds scattered an estimated 6 tons of plastic, paper, cardboard and other trash into Idaho farm fields and waterways, prompting a call for mitigation measures from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
In what looked like an effort to pressure the Solid Waste Advisory Board to expedite adoption of its countywide plan, the Logan Municipal Council last December passed an outright ban on plastic bags, slated to take effect in April in the event the advisory board failed to act by that time. The ban, presented as a “fallback” measure, was passed in the final meeting for outgoing Councilman Herm Olsen, a longtime advocate of plastic-bag regulation.
The council walked that back in early 2020 at the behest of both Young and Logan Mayor Holly Daines, who also serves on the Solid Waste Advisory Board along with several other mayors, county officials and community representatives.
“The board met, and they kind of let me know they weren’t happy with our council’s action, and I said let me go back to council and see what they would consider,” Daines said, explaining that advisory board members felt they needed more time to seek public input and possibly tweak the draft document before final implementation.
“We just felt like we really jumped the gun,” Daines said.
All parties were poised to reconsider the issue in early spring. Then came the pandemic.
“We’re on hold because of the coronavirus, because everything we would need to do would heavily impact people going into stores as well as the stores themselves,” Young said. “So it was determined by the committee that this is definitely not the time to address that. … We shouldn’t try to adjust something when people are already hemorrhaging all over and finding it hard to do things.”
Young noted the pandemic has even prevented the board from meeting.
Despite the divergent courses taken by the advisory board and Logan council last year, neither Young nor Daines sense any hostility between the two bodies.
“I do respect them,” Young said of council members. “They openly admitted that it was not their intent to make it look like they were going to do it anyway. They were just moving forward to say, ‘Hey, we have a contingency plan.’ But they pulled back on that and said they’ll work with us.”
Before passing its conditional bag ban in December, the Logan Municipal Council adopted a resolution in support of the advisory board’s proposed countywide plastic-reduction plan. This plan does not contain a ban but calls for a public-education program and working with retailers to formulate their own reduction measures and policies.
Additionally, the Logan resolution established a special landfill handling fee for plastic bags, requiring retailers to pay a $17.50 per ton surcharge. But this has yet to be implemented, pending broader action by the council and board.
“The board really wanted people to be educated on the program and as much as possible make it voluntary, because we’ve had some retailers take some great steps to try and help mitigate their problem,” Daines said, mentioning store discounts for shoppers using reusable bags among those steps. “We hope to resume the discussion at some time. Can I tell you when that would be? No.”
Young wanted to allay concerns that the pandemic delay will lead to all-out abandonment of plastic-bag management efforts.
“There’s a lot that has to go into this for it to work,” he said. “During the middle of a pandemic, when we are just now trying to figure out how to help businesses to stay in business, it is not the time to have that as something we’re trying to bring to them also. There will be an appropriate time later on. Not right now.”