City of Aspen poised to approve plastic bag fee

A 20-cent fee on disposable grocery store bags appears to have the support of four members of Aspen City Council — enough to pass the

new law next month — but officials still have questions about how the hundreds of thousands in annual funds collected by the program should be spent.

Aspen City Council on Monday passed the “Waste Reduction Fee Ordinance” 4-1 on first reading, with Councilman Adam Frisch dissenting. The fee will get a more extensive public hearing on Sept. 12, when council will have the opportunity to approve final adoption of the ordinance.

The ordinance would implement a 20-cent fee on single-use disposable paper and plastic bags handed out at the two grocery stores within city limits. The towns of Basalt and Carbondale are considering similar ordinances, with Basalt Town Council holding its first reading on the fee tonight.

The idea is to encourage residents to bring their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. The city has tried educational efforts over the last few years that have been ineffective in reducing consumption, city environmental health specialist Ashley Cantrell said.

Telluride has a similar program, while at least 20 nations, including Italy, China, India, Botswana and the United Arab Emirates have instituted outright plastic bag bans. In California, 13 city and county governments have enacted some sort of bag ban, including San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, unincorporated Los Angeles County and unincorporated Marin County, meaning about 10 percent of the Golden State’s population lives in no-plastic-bag communities, according to a report cited by city officials from the advocacy group Environment California.

“When I look at the list of cities and nations that have this program in place, our name needs to be on that list and I’m glad we are here,” said Councilman Torre, who has been pushing for a plastic bag ordinance since his first council term that ended in 2007.

Councilman Derek Johnson said the city is headed in the right direction with the plan, and Councilman Steve Skadron indicated he would be in support, although both elected officials said they had questions on the financial details of the bag fee.

Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland brushed aside concerns that Aspen’s tourists would struggle with the program.

“People who come here are extremely intelligent,” Ireland said. “ … I don’t think this is going to be that hard to figure out.”

Frisch voted no because he felt that if the city is going to regulate disposable bags, it might as well ban them outright, he said.

According to estimates provided by the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), the average American uses 400 disposable grocery bags per year. This would result in an average of $80 per person a year if bag consumption is not reduced under the city’s proposed fee. The city is hoping the fee would reduce bag consumption by 65 percent, which would leave about 2.17 million bags consumed by Pitkin County residents each year, and about $434,000 in fees. The estimates do not account for disposable bag consumption by tourists.

The fee would only apply to bags handed out in the check-out lines of local grocery stores and would exempt bags available in the produce department or bags from other retail stores and restaurants.

The bags — referred to by some as “urban tumbleweeds” — are rarely recycled and used for an average of a few minutes before being disposed of, according to bag fee proponents. The bags require fossil fuels to make and are known in coastal areas to wind up in the ocean, where they contribute to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a floating island of waste the size of Texas located in the North Pacific.

There also is concern about fish and wildlife eating broken-down traces of the bags, which introduces plastics into the food web. Many plastic bags contain additives that are known to be endocrine disruptors.

“This is a great step toward showing the world we really care” about the local environment, said Tripp Adams, a Basalt resident and member of the Basalt “Green Team,” which has been lobbying for a bag fee. All of Monday’s limited public comment was in support of the ordinance.

The money would filter into a new city “waste reduction fund” and could pay for programs aimed at general solid waste reduction, as well as educational efforts around the bag fee program and why the bags are fit to be discouraged.

The money also could help grocers with their internal costs on administering the program, and help the city buy reusable bags that could be distributed throughout the community.

Some council members were concerned about the amount of money that could be raised, as the point is not to create a windfall for the city, but to reduce waste.

“Four-hundred-thirty thousand dollars seems … far in excess of what’s required to run an information or educational campaign,” Skadron said. He added that he thought 20-cents per bag was “aggressive,” and asked if 5- or 10-cents per bag would be more appropriate.

CORE director Nathan Ratledge said the fee amount is intended to be enough to notice, but not enough to provide a true economic hardship.

Other council members expressed worry that the fee would not deter disposable bag use to the extent city staffers are predicting, and would therefore raise more money than projected.

“This could bring in more than $1 million if people don’t [reduce usage] and that’s not the intent,” Johnson said. “If we are not successful we will need to figure out what we are going to do with all that money.”

Council members requested more detailed projections on how the city would spend its bag fee money. Cantrell said it could go to any program dedicated to reducing solid waste, such as the city’s new effort to encourage composting in local restaurants or recycling programs. The money could not go to other programs, such as the Canary Initiative or general city operations.

The fee ordinance as written allows grocers to keep 5 percent of the fee up to $100 per month to cover costs, but City Market and other local grocers think the amount should be more like 25 percent, Cantrell said. The grocers will be asked to provide more detail on what they think their costs will be, but Cantrell said the stores are figuring in a “loss of productivity” associated with the fee as employees take more time out of their day to administer the program.

Frisch said grocers’ costs are likely to be in the tens of thousands to rewrite check-out software and implement tax remittance procedures.

As far as tracking the success or failure of the program, grocers are not inclined to divulge the number of bags distributed at each store, as that would be proprietary information, but Cantrell said she has a verbal agreement from grocery stores to provide the estimated percentage reduction in bag use. There also is a provision in the ordinance that would allow the city to audit three years of grocery store records to determine both compliance with the program and bag reduction, but the city would not be able to make those specific records public.

There also are questions on how the fee would be applied to the self check-out stands; it’s likely to be on the honor system where the customer enters the number of bags they are taking at the end of the process.

City staff is recommending a Nov. 15 implementation date for the ordinance, but City Market is concerned about having to deal with the new fee during the holiday season and is requesting a delay until Jan. 15.

Council consensus was that the fee should not be implemented mid-season, and that it should take effect either in November or next spring. However, council members said they would prefer implementing the fee sooner rather than later.

City Market spokeswoman Kelli McGannon emphasized that the company would prefer an education-only approach versus a bag fee to reduce waste, and that the groc
ery store and sister chain King Soopers on the  Front Range have gained traction in using fewer plastic bags and encouraging the recycling of them. However, local representatives have been “fantastic” in including the grocery store chain in discussions and soliciting feedback, McGannon said.

Should the fee be implemented, it will be up to cashiers to tally how many bags each customer uses upon checkout, McGannon said. This is likely to be a burden, as cashiers are not in the business of counting bags, she said. Cashiers will need extra education so they can explain the fee to customers, and that it is coming from the city and not the store, McGannon said.


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