Denver poised to implement grocery bag fees

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Denver is poised to join the cities of Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin in requiring stores to charge shoppers a fee for not bringing their own reusable grocery bags when they do their shopping.

Whether paper or plastic, bags from grocery and convenience stores will cost shoppers a nickel each — the city’s take is three cents and the store will keep two.

The new policy, which passed out of a committee and now moves on to a vote of the full council is an attempt to cut down on waste. If adopted, the new policy will go into effect on Earth Day, April 22.

A Denver Post editorial notes that Washington’s rule has been shown to significantly change shoppers’ behavior, which is the stated goal of Denver’s new policy.

“My focus on doing this ordinance has never been about raising money but rather to affect the behavior of consumers by reducing consumption of single use bags,” said City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega in a video clip circulated by conservative blog Revealing Politics.

While that intention may make those with libertarian principles bristle, Denver’s bag fee is hardly the most onerous in Colorado. Aspen has banned plastic bags outright and imposed a 20-cent fee on paper bags, according to the Post. Durango and Boulder also have bag fees, which are twice as much as Denver’s.

The ordinance calls for the city to provide reusable bags to those who can’t afford them and for the revenue it generates to educate the public about reducing consumption.

Plastic bags have become as much of a scourge for environmentalists as plastic six-pack holders used to be. Recycling website says that worldwide, a million plastic bags are used every minute and each can take from 20 to 1,000 years to degrade in sunlight, depending on their composition.

The Denver Post reported that 130 million single-use bags are used every year in Denver.

Support for such fees can be a mixed bag, so to speak. City Councilors in New York City are weighing a similar fee, hoping to reduce the number of bags heading to the landfill by as much as 60 percent.

Proponents says the bags are a major source of litter that are easily whipped away by the wind. They can clog storm drains and pose a risk to wildlife, either from suffocation or ingestion. They are a prominent ingredient in the so-called Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, swirling eddies of flotsam often said to be the size of Texas. Eighty percent of these patches’ garbage originated on land, including wind-borne plastic bags.

However, some studies have shown that the reusable bags people are meant to use could end up teeming with dangerous bacteria after a few trips to the store, including E. coli and other coliform bacteria.

Researchers from University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economics said that deaths from food-borne illnesses increased by a startling 46 percent in San Francisco since that city outlawed plastic bags in 2007.

San Francisco’s health officer disputed the study, saying they failed to prove the link between bacteria that can be found in reusable bags to an increase in deaths. To reduce the possibility of illness, he said, consumers should wash their bags frequently.

Merchants have also reported an increase in theft that some have attributed to the bags — turns out, they make it easier to conceal one’s shoplifting.

Some sectors of the recycling industry are also concerned about the trend of charging for bags because it could reduce the amount of raw material that is recycled, meaning that new products will have to use a larger percentage of virgin material.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries said a better solution is to provide convenient places for consumers to recycle plastic bags. The organization says a ton of recycled paper is the equivalent of 17 saved trees. The plastic bag industry, which employs 30,000 people, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, is also concerned about what fees and bans could mean for jobs.

“No matter how good the intentions, these policy discussions should not be made in a vacuum,” ISRI president Robin Weiner said in a statement reported on the Plastics News website.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement reported by the Denver Post that he’s supportive of the overall goals of the ordinance, but that he’s concerned about its regressive nature and the disproportionate impact it could have on low-income shoppers.

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Greg Campbell