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Bag Fee or Bag Free?

: Thursday August 1, 11:30AM

The Denver City Council will be presented with a proposed ordinance in August 2013 to reduce the use of single-use paper and plastic bags provided by food stores within its city limits.  Here’s a summary of the proposed .05 cent fee.

Please — Express your opinion to Denver City Council Members and Mayor Hancock by attending one of the meetings, writing a letter, and making a call.

Contact a Council Member

Contact Janna to get your organization or youth group involved.  [email protected]

Draft Ordinance for the City of Denver

(provided by Denver City Councilwoman Deborah Ortega as of 7/20/2013, subject to change)

Simply stated, this ordinance proposes that at retail locations greater than 1,500 square feet in size where greater than 2% of total sales are grocer items; shoppers will be subject to a $0.05 fee for each plastic and/or paper point of sale bag they carry out the door. A portion of this fee will then be returned to the city to fund, purchase and distribution of free reusable bags to locations where the fees are being paid as well as educate Denver shoppers about the environmental impacts of single-use bags, the benefits of reusable bags, and the importance of washing your reusable bags. The fee will also be used to fund an education and outreach program administered by Denver Environmental Health targeted at mitigating the effects of trash associated with single-use bags.

The City Council schedule for consideration is:

• August 13, 1:30pm – Health Safety Committee – Presentation to Committee with 15 minutes Public Comment

• August 20, 1:30pm – Health Safety Committee – Expected action to move ordinance forward

• September 10, 9:30am – Mayor/Council

• September 16, 5:30 pm – City Council – First reading

• September 30, 5:30 pm – City Council – Second Reading and Public Hearing (anticipated)

• April 22, 2014 – Ordinance implemented

All meetings at the City and County Building, 1437 Bannock Street, Denver. Council meets in the Council Chambers, Room 450. 

Why is the ordinance needed?

Denver residents consume over 130 million disposable bags every year at grocery and convenience stores alone. That’s over 175 bags per resident per year. The vast majority of these bags are used only once and then disposed of in some fashion. Using US Census data, City of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health estimates that 4.3 tons of paper bags and sacks and plastic bags, wraps, and sacks were added to Denver’s municipal waste streams in 2009. These disposable bags results in annual costs to the tax payers in excess of $1 million.

Across the US, 4.8 million tons of “paper bags and sacks” “plastic bags, wraps, and sacks” were added to our nation’s municipal waste streams (EPA, 2009). Single-use plastic bags amount to 19 pounds of landfill waste per second or 300,000 tons of landfill waste from shopping bags alone per year. Less than half of the paper waste and only 9.4% of plastics were recycled.

Plastic grocery and shopping bags may offer short-term convenience, but they have long-term costs. Not only do single-use bags require resources such as petroleum and natural gas to manufacture, their disposal presents a number of problems as well.

Plastic bags become litter. They are so light that they blow out of trash cans and landfills. Plastic bags negatively impact waterways and clog up storm sewer drains. This increases the City’s waste management fees for labor, litter control and capital costs on streams.

According to A-1 Organics, plastic bags contaminate and increase the cost of recycling and composting streams because they must be pulled out by hand.

It may take over 1,000 years for plastic bags to biodegrade. They break into small pieces that animals can mistake for food. Birds and turtles are among the types of wildlife that are impacted by plastic marine pollution either by ingestion or entanglement. According to the U.S. Marine Debris Monitoring Program, plastic bags are the most commonly found item on beaches with the potential to entangle animals.

In the Denver area, paper bags cost more to produce than plastic, so by adding a fee to all bags, the City is not just moving the problem from plastic to paper. Paper bags also have environmental impacts related to air quality, greenhouse emissions and water quality during manufacturing. The intention of the ordinance is to encourage the use of reusable bags which have been shown to have the lowest cost and environmental impact of all choices when used multiple times.

A fee, rather than a ban, is preferred because it still gives the consumer convenience and choice. It creates a fiscal incentive to change behavior. The fee also helps to offset costs of education and maintenance of the program.

Has a bag fee or ban been done successfully elsewhere in the US?  In Colorado?

Washington D.C. in 2009 adopted an ordinance that implemented a $0.05 bag fee in 2010. Studies have revealed a reduction in paper and plastic bag usage greater than 60% in just the first two years of the program. (See Beacon Hill Institute Study, 2011)

Santa Monica, CA passed the first plastic bag ban combined with a fee on paper bags which was implemented in September, 2011. 2013 Update.

Eugene, OR passed an ordinance in October 2012 banning plastic bags and also mandating that merchants could only give out recycled paper bags and a fee of $0.05 must be charged for each recycled paper bag given to a customer. The single-use plastic bag ban, along with the paper bag pass-through charge, went into effect on May 1st, 2013. Thirteen days later, the Eugene Council voted to re-think its position on the five cents fee because of complaints from low income residents that hadn’t been informed of the fee. Outcome TBD.

Toronto, Canada introduced a $0.05 fee in 2010. By 2012 plastic bag use dropped 53 percent. Toronto’s Mayor Ford asked to rescind the fee, claiming it inconveniences consumers, unfairly benefits retailers and is no longer necessary. Meanwhile, many retailers have voluntarily extended the plastic bag fee across the province of Ontario and across Canada. Industry representatives say their members are likely to continue charging for plastic bags even if the Toronto bylaw is rescinded.

Oakland, CA implemented a $0.10 fee for paper bags and plastic bags are banned as of January 2013. Businesses affected by the new law include liquor stores, pharmacies, grocery stores and other establishments that sell packaged foods, alcohol or both. Restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops are the only exceptions.

Los Angeles, CA – On June 18, 2013, the City Council moved to ban plastic carryout bags and place a $0.10 charge on paper bags at grocery stores and select retailers throughout the city. The ordinance goes into effect on January 1, 2014 for large stores and July 1, 2014 for smaller stores.

Austin, TX – On March 2013 implemented legislation that bans plastic & paper bags.

Seattle, WA – Beginning July 1, 2012 single-use plastic bags are banned, and a $0.05 fee is levied on paper bags. Customers using vouchers or electronic benefit cards from state or federal food assistance programs for grocery purchases are exempt from the paper bag charge.

State of Hawaii – Effective January 17, 2013, Hawaii is the first to enact a statewide $0.05 per bag fee. Under the ordinance, all businesses including grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets and other retailers must charge a $0.05 fee for single-use plastic carryout bags. By Jan. 17, 2014 all single-use plastic bags will be prohibited on the island completely.

In Colorado, ordinances to reduce the use of single-use shopping bags have been adopted.

• Aspen – adopted Oct 2011, bans plastic carryout bags and a $0.20 fee on paper bags.

• Basalt – adopted September 2011, $0.20 fee on plastic and paper checkout bags.

• Boulder – Passed in November 2012, a $0.10 fee on all disposable plastic and paper bags at all grocery stores. This ordinance went into effect July 1, 2013.

• Breckenridge – adopted April 2013, $0.10 fee on every disposable bag provided to customers to transport merchandise.

• Carbondale – Adopted May 1, 2012, a ban on plastic bags.

• Durango – July 16, 2013, a $0.10 fee on disposable plastic and paper bags at the supermarket checkout will be up for its first vote by City Council.

• Fort Collins – March 2013, an ordinance to impose a bag fee received a tie vote by City Council.

• Telluride – adopted October 5, 2010, implements a ban on all plastic carryout bags (including compostable plastic), $0.10 fee on “permitted paper bags”; applies to ALL businesses.

• Durango and Englewood –in the middle of efforts to adopt bag reduction programs

What are the concerns of such an ordinance?

A fee is a bigger burden on the lowest income families.  It is expected that each individual that use continues to use single-use plastic bags will pay an extra $9/year. For a family of four that begins to add up. The ordinance’s supporters believe that low income communities also care about the environment and will comply with the ordinance. In addition, many low income people already employ reusable bags for their shopping.

This fee will create a new bureaucracy. In fact, no new infrastructure will be required. The City’s Department of Environmental Health existing staff will oversee the collection of the fee and educational campaign. Grocery stores will pay this fee to the city when they pay the quarterly city sales tax owed.

Reusable bags also have environmental consequences during their manufacture and use. Reused bags may not be sanitary. Some have attributed an increase in disease related to e-coli bacteria to the substitution of cloth bags for plastic bags; the science in this area is undocumented.  A review of life cycle assessment research for single-use plastic, single-use paper, and reusable bags supports the conclusion that reusable shopping bags have lower environmental impacts than single-use bags. After twenty uses, a reusable bag is a clear winner. Moreover, a shift from one single-use bag to another (i.e., paper v. plastic) may improve one environmental outcome, but this will then be offset by another environmental impact. As a result, when compared, neither paper nor plastic is a more sustainable than the other. (Boustead, 2007, Dilli, 2007, and Greene, 2011).

The rebound effect – after the initial shock of the fee wears off, people will revert to previous behavior. A Beacon Hill Institute study of Washington DC addressed the concern that anything less than a 25 cent charge doesn’t change behavior. The study suggested that Washington DC should raise its fee approximately 1 cent per year for the fee to maintain the incentive to reduce the use of disposable bags at the same level of participation.

All stores may not comply – they might not charge customers the fee or might just absorb the costs of the fee and not collect from customers. People may shop outside the city to avoid the tax.

Banning of plastic bags simply moves the problem elsewhere. Cities that have banned plastic bags often report an increase in the sale of plastic bin bags. Instead of plastic, paper bags are often used. This raises other issues, for instance, the use of virgin paper pulp.

Plastic bags are very low priority when all the environmental issues of concern are taken into account. Even some green supporters are against the banning of bags, preferring instead to educate people and change habits rather than forcing the issue.

Banning of bags may breed complacency. People may feel that they are making their contribution towards green living by not using plastic bags and overlook the bigger issues.

Why not encourage voluntary reduction and recycling of disposable plastic bags? Education campaigns only have not made a significant difference in disposable bag use. The City and County of Denver’s recycling program has encouraged voluntary reduction of plastic bag use for many years.

A plastic bag recycling program is already in place in some stores.  Recycling is not a solution to plastic bag litter. While plastic bags are ‘technically’ recyclable, the truth is that less than 5 percent of plastic bags are actually recycled each year. In 2013, the City of Sacramento reported that its materials recovery facility shuts down six times a day to remove plastic from the machines for an estimated loss of $100,000 annually.  The largest environmental and cost savings is to avoid production of single-use bags.

Why not treat all plastic bags the same; require all stores to participate? Denver Councilwoman Ortega will propose a phased approach, beginning with food stores which are large enough to have the infrastructure to easily collect the fees. Eventually all Denver retailers may be required to participate.

Should the City use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?

So far, the City of Denver and “the City of New York has used carrots, to little effect. Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.” (New York Times May 18, 2013)

Mandates should be used sparingly by government agencies. Voluntary participation or market forces should drive appropriate behaviors. Other policies would have to be in place to incentivize retailers and shoppers to reduce plastic bag use. Sample policies include: fining a plastic bag distributor if a bag with its logo is found as litter; requiring stores to restore a .05 cent discount if a shopper brings her own bag; requiring that all bags be 100% post consumer paper or plastic.

Other towns in Colorado are charging .10 cents. They are all resort towns. Because Denver is not, the City Councilwoman wants to make the fee affordable and less regressive for low-income families. Many other ordinances in the US have not been in effect long enough to evaluate their effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the City is footing the bill for the environmental costs of plastic bags.

Is there a Tabor consequence to a bag fee?

Many other cities in Colorado have successfully adopted and legally defended similar legislation. The City of Denver is working closely with the City Attorney’s office.

What kind of impact is predicted?

Denver City Council staff are still collecting data.  Other cities have reported a reduction in disposable bags of 50% or more within two years.

The bag fee is anticipated to generate approximately $1.5 million/year for the City. Approximately two cents of each five cent bag fee will be kept by the retailer to pay for the costs to implement the fee. Three cents for each bag fee will be used for an education and outreach campaign that will be administered by DEH. There will be no revenue generated for, or cost to, the City’s General Fund.

Great articles and videos about the impact of single-use bags

Team Marine – A short documentary by high school students who advocated for and won the first plastic bag ban in the city of Santa Monica, Ca.

• Boulder Disposable Bag Fee Nexus Study

Fort Collins Triple Bottom Line Evaluation, plastic bag policy options

Bag it! Documentary on plastic bags here in COLORADO!

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 2012

Reducing 4 More film about plastic bag use, 2008

Even more research

• Boustead Consulting and Associates, (2007) “Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags – Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper”

• Dilli, Rae and Peter Allan (2007), Hyder Consulting Pty Ltd., “Comparison of existing life cycle analysis of shopping bag alternatives,”

• Greene, Joseph, PhD, (2011) California State University Chico Research Foundation: “Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags in California”