Utah’s solution to plastic waste requires that consumers, companies, and lawmakers work together

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For Sarah Bateman, Board President of Utah Recycling Alliance, the first step towards reducing her plastic use was swapping out plastic grocery bags for reusable bags. Over the years, she has made other small changes to reduce waste, which makes it possible for her family of five to take out the garbage only six times a year.

However, plastic waste can be difficult to avoid when basic necessities at the store come packaged in plastic and most retail companies offer plastic bags for convenience.

With plastic so readily available, America’s plastic use has produced some large numbers.

Plastic Use Statistics

  • According to Livestrong, it takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce 100 billion plastic shopping bags, which is the number of plastic bags that Americans dispose of yearly.
  • According to Senator Jani Iwamoto, Utahns produce 940 million plastic shopping bags annually, which requires 112,800 barrels of oil to produce.
  • It takes approximately 1,000 years for plastic bags to decompose, though experts say that plastic does not technically decompose. Rather, it breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics which pose health dangers to both humans and animals.
  • Despite the widespread use of plastic bags, only one percent are recycled worldwide.

What can consumers do?

Though many products do come in plastic packaging, Dr. Royal DeLegge, Environmental Health Director Salt Lake County Health Department, says consumers have power in convincing companies to cut down on plastic use.

“When consumers want to push companies in a given direction, companies will listen. What people need to do is make their views known to those companies, to send letters, send emails, go on social media, get the word out that they’re looking for something specific in a company’s behavior, in the products they use,” he said. “Responding to customers is a good way to improve their image because they now have a competitive advantage in that they’re environmentally friendly.”

Bateman agrees.

“There are those market trends that if companies are paying attention to those, they recognize that the younger consumers as they grow up, they’re looking for: How is this company addressing social justice?” she said. “How is this company addressing environmental issues and the impact those companies are making?”

Bateman believes the way to reach companies is through individuals making small changes which will eventually become the new normal. She says that the busy lifestyles that many people live make it easy to become passive as a consumer or overwhelmed when it comes to reducing personal plastic waste.

“We get overwhelmed. We think this is such a large problem and there’s no way that there’s anything I can do as a consumer to really affect change,” she said.

Bateman carries her own utensils when she goes out to eat to avoid using plastic ones. She also carries her reusable bag.

“These are small steps we can take and then, as other people see us in our behavior, then that gives them the permission to also adopt some of these low waste lifestyles,” she said.

Recycling

Another step that consumers can take is recycling. According to Jaren Scott, Deputy Director at Trans-Jordan Landfill, a large percentage of garbage in landfills could have been recycled. The landfill provides recycling for cardboard, metal, and plastics number 1 and 2. Those are usually products such as milk cartons or bottles which have a neck and a lid.

Scott said plastics number 3 through 7 are not currently being recycled by the landfill because there is no market for them since China stopped taking these types of recyclables.

Due to the circumstances, Scott said the best thing to do is choose wisely when you’re buying.

“If you can buy a thing of grapes and put it in your own bag instead of putting it in a (plastic) sack that comes in the produce aisle, that’s great. If you can buy something that doesn’t have a flimsy container, that’s even better,” he said.

A major problem with plastic bags says Scott, is that they are lightweight, so they have the potential to fly away from the other landfill items. The Trans-Jordan Landfill has a fence surrounding the landfill intended to catch these flyaway items.

According to Nelson, plastic bags and other thin-film plastics cannot be recycled and are considered a contaminant that should not go into the recycling stream.

“The reason for that is plastic bags get caught in the machinery where we process these materials and you have to shut down the machinery to clear those out,” he said. “That just makes the process more costly.”

However, many local retailers do collect those thin-film plastics in bulk, he said. They have private recyclers who can collect and process them, so consumers can bring plastic bags to these retailers.

What can companies do?

The possibilities for companies to reduce their plastic waste are plentiful, but most options come down to the basics: Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

“Look for any opportunity to repackage your material with as little plastic as possible,” said Nelson. “Look at supply chain because a lot of plastic that’s associated with doing business comes from transportation. If they have a supplier that’s local, they make arrangements to go get those supplies themselves, which eliminates things like plastic packaging associated with that. So also looking at your supply chain and where you can minimize the use of plastic.”

He also suggested incentivizing consumers to bring in reusables and using materials other than plastic to package products. Plastic takes a long time to degrade, which is part of the reason that it poses a threat.

Meghan Higgins, a consumer, said that change has to come from the top.

“I feel that they (companies) have as much responsibility to our environment as we do, and if we as consumers don’t have choices to make the change, then there won’t be any.”

Why reduce plastic use?

According to DeLegge, plastic bags are often used for an average of 20 seconds, but it takes one thousand years for them to degrade. However, plastics never truly go away.

“Plastics don’t decompose,” DeLegge said. “They break into smaller pieces, and with a long enough span of time, you can get micro-particles of plastic. There’s no place on earth, including the North Pole where plastics can’t be found, particularly in these micro forms.

These microplastics are dangerous to both humans and animals.

According to DeLegge, there are estimates of a hundred million or more animals that die through having their digestive systems clogged with some form of plastic.

His advice to lawmakers?

“There are people who study these things,” he said. “There are people who have solid data. Look at these things and the impact they have and listen to those people. When we go to policymakers and lawmakers and educate them on issues of concern, we need to be heard.”

What can lawmakers do?

In 2016, 2017, and 2018, Utah Senator Jani Iwamoto, attempted to pass a bill which would require companies to sell single-use plastic bags for a small fee. However, the bill failed to pass.

According to Bateman, such measures have been taken in other states and could help to shift the public’s thinking in terms of plastic bag use.

“If I go to the grocery store and I want a banana, I pay for the banana,” she said. If I want milk, I pay for the milk, so if I want a bag, I can pay for the bag…it allows consumers to see, I’m just buying a few items, I don’t need a bag.”

Bateman said she believes that many Utahns value caring for the environment. The solution, she said, requires a combination of the consumer, the business community, and government to work together to clean up the environment.

“We do all realize and have that value that the environment is worth protecting because it feeds us all and houses us all- it is our home.”

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