Village Market Cashier Caroline Breland bagged a shopper's groceries in August 2018. Village Market and other retailers in Moab have since phased out single-use, carry-out plastic bags, after a citywide ban took effect on Jan. 1. [Moab Sun News file photo]

Plastic bags won’t be making a grand reappearance at local retailers’ checkout stands this year, despite one libertarian-leaning Spanish Fork lawmaker’s efforts to undo a citywide ban on the material.

As the Utah Legislature prepared to adjourn this week, state lawmakers appeared unlikely to pass a bill that would have prevented the City of Moab and other local government entities from banning the distribution of single-use, carry-out plastic bags.

House Bill 320 previously cleared the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee last month by a 6-4 vote. But the proposal stalled after it moved beyond that committee, and Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said that lawmakers shouted down the bill’s sponsor when he tried to revive it on the House floor.

“It is pretty much dead for now,” she told the city council during its regular meeting on Tuesday, March 12. “Who knows if it will rear its ugly head?”

If another version of the proposal does emerge during the 2020 legislative session, Moab City Council member Karen Guzman-Newton suggested that HB 320 sponsor Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, won’t be leading the charge.

“(McKell) said … if it did not pass this time, he would not bring it back up again next year,” Guzman-Newton said. “Still, I think somebody else (could), though.”

McKell, who joined the legislature in 2013, gained a national profile for his efforts to clamp down on local government entities’ ability to regulate the distribution of single-use plastic bags. Just last month, he appeared on the television talk show Fox & Friends to cite plastic bag bans as an example of what he called “anti-business movements” and government overreach.

“We don’t need government to tell us what to do and how to live,” he told a Fox & Friends host.

Businesses should have the option to distribute single-use plastic bags, McKell said, and there should be consistency in the marketplace.

“If we’re going to have one city that has a ban (and) another city that doesn’t, that creates inconsistency in the marketplace,” he said on Fox & Friends. “I think we really need to focus on, let’s let companies thrive. We hit them hard enough with all of the taxes and all of the policies that we create. Let’s create some consistency in the market and let those local companies make those decisions.”

Park City has enacted a similar ban on single-use plastic bags, and according to news reports, the City of Logan is exploring the possibility of adopting a related ordinance.

After McKell moved to prohibit the existing bans, Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, stepped in and proposed an amendment that would have shielded current regulations in Moab and Park City. But lawmakers ultimately tabled that change.

Niehaus said that McKell “circled” — or held — his bill twice, once when she and Guzman-Newton urged him not to move forward with the proposal.

Guzman-Newton said she encouraged McKell to allow city officials on the House floor to see lawmakers at work.

“While we were sitting there, I was able to work legislators around to oppose preemption on principle and allow us as a local governing body to determine what is the best course of action for a city of our size,” she said.

McKell later attempted to “uncircle” his bill, but Niehaus said that video footage of the reaction to that move captures the broad opposition that he faced among other lawmakers.

“People (were) booing at the uncircling of the bill, so there was strong dislike for the bill by the majority of this legislature,” Niehaus said. “A lot of people think that cities should have the flexibility to do what they want to do — not be governed by the legislature in that way.”

While Moab and Park City’s regulations are unique in Utah, they follow much-broader trends elsewhere: Large states like California and major cities such as Seattle have enacted their own bans.

In the wake of those actions, growing numbers of nationwide retailers have moved to adjust their own bagging practices.

City Market’s parent company, for instance, announced last August that it will voluntarily phase out all single-use plastic bags by the year 2025, as part of its broader efforts to reduce waste at more than 2,000 stores.

The City of Moab’s ban took effect on Jan. 1, and its rollout of the changes has gone smoothly, with no reported violations to date, according to Moab City Communications Manager Lisa Church.

In some cases, she said, Moab City Manager David Everitt has granted exceptions to local retailers who were left with stockpiles of single-use plastic bags after the ban took effect. But it appears as though shoppers have adapted to the ban, Church said.

“We haven’t really had any complaints that I’m aware of,” she said.

Council member says sponsor won’t revisit proposal next year

“It is pretty much dead for now … Who knows if it will rear its ugly head?”