Shared from the 12/14/2019 The Denver Post eEdition
“WAR ON PLASTICS”
A public hearing on the proposal is slated for Dec. 16 By Conrad Swanson The Denver Post
Denver’s proposed fee for single-use bags is just the beginning of what City Council President Jolon Clark envisions as a “war on plastics.”
And it’s an overdue war, he said.
Denver lags behind many cities statewide and nationally in the increasingly popular sustainability movement. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have diminished their environmental footprints with bans and fees on plastic bags and are now taking aim at plastic straws and take-home food containers.
At least 13 Colorado cities have enacted fees or bans on plastic bags.
“I hope we’ll go from the dinosaur in the room, taking on bags, to finally being a progressive leader on this issue at the city level and the state level,” Clark said.
The council will host a public hearing on the proposed fees Dec.
Mayor Michael Hancock supports the measure, which could come into effect in July, although he threatened to veto a similar measure in 2013.
In 2013, Hancock believed fees would cost Denver’s low-income residents disproportionately more than others, spokeswoman Theresa Marchetta said. He instead preferred a ban because it would trigger a one-time cost for customers rather than recurring charges.
Hancock still prefers a ban, Marchetta said, but because the fees would pay for the distribution of reusable bags, he now supports the proposal. She called the mayor’s change of heart an evolution rather than a switch.
“I think this will pass with flying colors,” Clark said. “Next is probably Styrofoam and straws, and then things get a lot harder.”
These are the low-hanging fruits, said Councilwoman Kendra Black, another of the measure’s co-sponsors. But it’s where a community has to start to move toward more sustainable habits, she said.
Fees in other Colorado cities range from 10 cents per bag up to a quarter, said Kate Bailey, policy and research director at the Boulder-based Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler.
Telluride, Aspen, Carbondale and Boulder came first, adopting new laws from 2010 to 2012. Others — such as Breckenridge, Vail, Avon and Steamboat Springs — followed.
“No city larger than Boulder has done this. So for Denver to step up to the plate, we’re really excited,” Bailey said.
Denver is also behind in diversion rates — the rate at which materials that can be reduced, reused or recycled are diverted away from landfills — Bailey said. An Eco-Cycle study released in November placed Denver’s diversion rate at 23%, less than half the rates for statewide leaders such as Loveland, Louisville and Boulder, which boast rates of 60%, 53% and 52%, respectively.
The national average diversion rate is about 34%, said Jerry Tinianow, a sustainability consultant and the former chief sustainability officer for Denver.
“It’s a black eye for Denver to have a rate that far below the national average,” Tinianow said.
The bag fees represent progress, and Denver is catching up quickly, Tinianow acknowledged.
Within the first year of imposing the fees, grocery stores in Boulder used 68% fewer plastic bags, the city’s sustainability coordinator, Jamie Harkins, has said. That low usage has remained constant.
Denver could replicate those results, she and others said.
That’s perhaps an advantage of Denver’s late-in-the-game position, Bailey said.
San Francisco became the first American city to ban plastic bags in grocery stores, in 2007, and other major cities followed suit. Now, eight states have enacted some type of ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hilary Near, San Francisco’s zero waste analyst, said the city’s 10-cent fee has been a success. Now, an estimated two-thirds of customers no longer rely on single-use bags, she said.
“We’d like to increase that number even further, which is why we’re increasing the charge to 25 cents,” Near said.
San Francisco also bans polystyrene containers, which are typically used for restaurant takeout food.
Seattle banned plastic bags in 2012 and extended the prohibition to plastic straws and utensils in 2017.
Those communities and others caught most of the political heat and worked out many of the kinks in the early years, Bailey said.
So now, Denver can replicate tried and tested approaches.
“That’s the beneficial thing about not being first, is that you learn the lessons of those who moved before you. So now Denver can move fairly quickly,” Bailey said.
The expedited process also could apply to straws and plastic foam, she said. And both are in the cross hairs of at least some council members.
Councilman Paul Kashmann called Styrofoam “the most evil substance ever invented” as the committee discussed the bag fee proposal.
Those types of opinions grow less controversial by the day, Bailey said.
“There’s been a global shift in our tolerance for plastic in the last even year and a half,” she said. “The world is fed up with the plastics in our oceans and the pollution, so we’re not seeing that push-back.”
Clark, Black and others noted that their public conversations on the topic are met with overwhelming support.
Tinianow noted, however, that plastic bags represent a minuscule amount of landfill waste. So eliminating them entirely — along with plastic straws and Styrofoam — is only part of the equation.
“It may not move the trash numbers all that much, but it’s getting people into that mind-set,” he said.
Denver also must consider avenues to boost compost rates and changing the way residents are charged for what they throw away, Tinianow said. A pay-as-you-throw system would further push residents toward sustainability.
Tinianow said he prefers to call it a “free-to-be-green” arrangement.
However, when Hancock and other mayoral candidates said during the 2018 city elections that they would support such an approach, some residents objected. Marchetta did not immediately reply when asked whether Hancock still plans to move forward with his proposal.
The next steps for Denver likely rest heavily on state lawmakers, Clark said.
A House committee killed a bill in the 2019 General Assembly that would have stopped restaurants and bars from automatically offering plastic straws unless specifically requested.
Democratic Rep. Susan Lontine of Denver proposed that bill and said she’s not planning to introduce similar legislation in 2020.
But other lawmakers may be planning different approaches to the sustainability issue.
In particular, Bailey, Clark and others are eyeing a possible repeal or change to a 1993 law restricting local governments from regulating plastics.
“All this stuff is kind of that first step. … When people start to get used to this kind of thing, you’ll see this isn’t just a one and done,” Clark said. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”