Sometimes there’s no substitute for the old way of doing things. The 10-cent plastic bag fee that starts Thursday in Denver should take grocery and retail shoppers and carryout customers back to the time before plastic was king.
The Denver City Council approved the fees — which also apply to single-use paper bags — in late 2019 and they were set to go into effect until the pandemic began. But as more people relied on single-use bags and carryout to avoid contracting COVID-19, the council agreed to postpone the fees, which will now go into effect July 1.
There’s evidence to suggest that the fees provide customers a financial incentive to bring their own reusable bags to grocery or retail stores, according to Jerry Tinianow, Denver’s former chief sustainability officer who now works as a sustainability consultant.
“It’s not surprising because for most of human history there were no plastic bags,” Tinianow said.
A set of fees in Chicago reduced disposable bag usage by nearly 28%, Politico reported. Fees in Boulder cut their use by about 70%, The Daily Camera Reported. And England’s use of the bags shrank by 85% with the fees, The Guardian reported.
On top of other bag-fee programs in Colorado, the state legislature passed a bill this year that will ban single-use plastic bags and polystyrene products in many stores and restaurants statewide by 2024. Gov. Jared Polis has not yet signed that bill.
“We’re just addicted to single-use items and we don’t need to be,” Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black said.
Of the fees collected, $0.04 will go to the businesses and the remaining $0.06 will go to the city, Black said. It’ll bring in potentially a few million each year, and Denver must put it toward sustainable efforts like advertising environmentally friendly programs and offering residents reusable bags.
The more successful the program is, the less money the city should collect, Black said.
Cashiers at Safeway stores will count the number of bags a customer uses and charge them accordingly, company spokeswoman Kristine Staaf said. Customers using self-checkout will be on the honor system and asked to ring up however many bags they require. In other cities with fees, Staaf said the company has found most customers charge themselves correctly.
Plastic bags can be recycled but Denver doesn’t accept them. The city’s website lists the bags as the city’s “#1 recycling contaminant.”
What Tinianow believes would be the real victory is a reduction in plastic bags in the city’s recycling streams, fewer clogged machines and fewer otherwise recyclable materials — like aluminum cans — thrown out because they’re inside bags, Tinianow said.
Fees and bans are only part of the solution to plastic waste, he added, with bags alone accounting for a fraction of a percent of what’s in landfills across the U.S., so more needs to be done.
Tinianow also mentioned another law the council approved in May, also sponsored by Black, that requires restaurants and other businesses to ask customers whether they want single-use items like utensils or condiment packages with takeout orders rather than automatically including them.
The rules at a glance — and tips
The new fees will apply to each single-use paper or plastic bag that customers use at grocery stores or bags that are included in food deliveries, curbside pickups and takeout orders, according to Winna MacLaren, spokeswoman for Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency.
Other retail stores like CVS, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, Kohl’s, Target, Walgreens and Walmart will also have to impose the fees. But beauty salons, auto mechanics and other businesses that aren’t primarily retail establishments aren’t required to charge the fees, MacLaren said. Farmers markets and marijuana dispensaries are also exempt.
In addition, customers who use state and federal food assistance programs won’t be charged for the bags.
To remember your bags, MacLaren suggests writing a reminder at the top of a grocery list or putting a note by the door. You can also hang reusable bags near a door or store them in easily accessible places like your car or bike baskets.
Tinianow also recommended cleaning bags regularly to avoid bacteria buildup.
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