Uncertain about Fort Collins’ proposed plastic bag ban? Here are the pros and cons

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A proposed ban on single-use plastic bags at large grocery stores is on Fort Collins’ April 6 ballot.

The City Council-initiated ballot measure is the fourth attempt at regulating plastic bags in Fort Collins, but this will be the first time voters get to weigh in. The measure also includes a 12-cent fee for paper bags at large grocers and would take effect in May 2022. It’s running parallel to state legislation that would enact a broader statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and expanded polystyrene foam containers.

Here are answers to FAQs about the plastic bag ballot measure.

How would the plastic bag ban work?

The measure would bar single-use, point-of-sale plastic bags from large grocers, effective May 1, 2022. A large grocer is a retail store at least 10,000 square feet in size that sells all or at least four of the following item types: staple foods, meat, produce, dairy products, frozen foods or other perishable items primarily for human consumption. (As a point of reference for square footage, Beavers Market on 1100 W. Mountain Ave. is about 7,000 square feet.) Paper bags would be available at those stores for a 12-cent fee.

City Council would be allowed to add other retailers and restaurants, as well as other types of plastics, to the policy in the future. Council members have expressed interest in barring expanded polystyrene foam containers (Styrofoam and similar materials) and single-use plastic utensils in the future.

The paper bag fee wouldn’t apply to customers who participate in income-qualified assistance programs such as SNAP. Council plans to look for other ways to prevent the policy’s disproportionate impact on lower-income residents if voters approve the bag ban. One possibility is supplying a fixed number of reusable bags for stores to offer to people who face barriers but aren’t using income-qualified assistance.

The plastic bag ban wouldn’t apply to other types of single-use plastic bags you often see in grocery stores, such as plastic bags for produce, trash bags or dog waste bags.

More:Fort Collins approves plastic bag ban ballot measure despite disagreement over preemption

How would the city enforce the plastic bag ban, and what would the bag fee pay for?

The city would launch a public awareness and outreach program after the ballot measure’s passage to make stores and residents aware of the measure, and staff would work directly with large grocers to assist with implementation. Enforcement would include compliance auditing and data collection, annual reporting of the policy’s performance and the possibility of civil penalties for retailers that violate the ban.

The 12-cent paper bag fee would be split 50-50 between the city and the retailers charging the fee. The city would use its portion of the fee to pay for program outreach, enforcement and the cost of providing free reusable bags to community members. Council approved an appropriation of $87,500 for policy rollout, contingent upon the ballot measure’s passage. The city would use the money to fund an awareness and outreach campaign, provision and distribution of reusable bags, and staffing for outreach and engagement with grocers. The money would have to be repaid within three years as the program becomes self-sustaining.

The city’s portion of the bag fee would also support its work to reduce plastic pollution, solid waste and litter and offset the cost of paper and plastic film recycling at the Timberline Recycling Center.

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What about the state legislation?

The Colorado General Assembly is currently considering a bill that would do three things: (1) Repeal a state law that bars the government from banning specific types of plastic, (2) enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and 10-cent fee for paper bags at stores and retail food establishments, effective September 2022 and (3) enact a statewide ban on expanded polystyrene containers at retail food establishments, effective January 2022.

The state legislation would allow municipalities to enact more stringent policies on plastics, effective July 2023. The House Committee on Energy & Environment passed the bill and moved it to the House Finance Committee on March 11. Getting through an initial committee hearing is an important hurdle that a bill must clear before it can become law, but the legislation could see amendments and will ultimately need majority approval from both chambers and the signature of Gov. Jared Polis.

It’s not yet clear exactly what would happen if both the local ballot measure and the state legislation pass. More stringent aspects of the local policy would likely be permitted, but the state legislation could override some more relaxed aspects of the local policy. Proponents of the ballot measure say its passage could serve as a community endorsement for the policy approach, encouraging passage of the state legislation, or a fail-safe if the state legislation falls through or is weakened by amendment. Opponents of the ballot measure say a local bag ban is unnecessary in light of the state legislation.

What are the arguments for and against the plastic bag ban?

Proponents of the ballot measure, including five of seven City Council members, say it will reduce plastic pollution and help Fort Collins achieve its goal of zero waste by 2030. Plastic of all kinds makes up about 10% of the waste Fort Collins sends to landfills, with plastic bags making up a small but undetermined percentage of that volume. The EPA estimates that plastic bags make up 0.3% of the waste stream nationally.

Still, the city can’t achieve zero waste without addressing single-use plastics. Staff projects the policy would reduce bag use by 75%, judging by results achieved by a plastic bag ban in Palo Alto, California. The measure would also reduce litter and microplastic pollution, which is a concern for air quality and waterways, which some council members consider the main point of the ban.

Opponents of the ballot measure, including Mayor Wade Troxell and council member Ken Summers, have said that it’s an overly restrictive policy that will harm businesses without providing benefit to the community. Summers points out that plastic bags make up only a small percentage of the waste stream and argues that the city can increase use of reusable bags by distributing them to the community or through other non-regulatory means. 

Summers has also criticized the lack of public engagement on the measure. The city conducted a nonscientific online survey that found majority support for the proposed policy and conducted some other outreach, but the COVID-19 pandemic truncated what would normally have been a more extended public engagement process. Proponents of the ballot measure retort that a citywide vote will give the whole community a chance to weigh in on the policy’s value.

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Another concern about the measure is that it’s regressive, meaning it will have a disproportionate impact on lower-income people. The city plans to exempt people who can show a benefit card for SNAP or other income-qualified assistance programs, but not all lower-income people qualify for or use income-qualified assistance programs. 

The city provides plastic bag recycling at the Timberline Recycling Center. However, the process is expensive and plastic bags are not 100% recyclable, so they still produce waste.

How effective are plastic bag bans?

A 2019 study of plastic bag bans in California found that the approach effectively reduced the use of plastic carryout bags, but that reduction was partially offset (about 30% by weight) by an increase in paper bag use and purchase of thicker plastic bags. The author suggested that some people who were using single-use plastic bags for pet waste and trash can liners had increased their purchase of thicker garbage bags to compensate. 

For more studies on effectiveness, see plasticbaglaws.org/effectiveness.

Paper bags are in some ways worse for the environment than plastic bags because they take more energy to produce. Imposing a fee on paper bags, as this policy would do, appears to be linked with lower use of paper bags based on effectiveness studies from other states and municipalities.

No issue committees have been formed in opposition to the measure as of March 18. An issue committee in favor of the measure, “Yes on 26,” filed papers with the City Clerk’s Office on March 17.

Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.