Denver City Council Mulling Plastic Bag Ban

In a city as obsessed with the outdoors as Denver, litter is an especially annoying eyesore. And the industries behind it, especially plastics, are contributing to climate change.

"We’ve just gotten used to everything being disposable. It’s just not good for our planet. And I don’t think it will be traumatic for people to carry a reusable bag," says Denver City Councilwoman Kendra Black.

Black is drafting legislation that would ban the plastic bags used by grocery stores and other retail counters. She plans on introducing the bill either in the coming months or after the 2020 state legislative session, when lawmakers are expected to take up a similar proposal.

At least ten cities in Colorado, including Boulder, Telluride and Vail, have banned or instituted fees on plastic bags despite a 1993 state statute that prohibits municipalities from banning certain plastics. "No unit of local government shall require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging, or labeling for any consumer products," the statute reads.

Observers who have been monitoring local plastic bag bans aren't quite sure why the statute exists. "I’ve never gotten a real complete cohesive answer on why it was added," says Morgan Cullen, a legislative and policy advocate at the Colorado Municipal League. "I think that it was just a general agreement that if [the state] is going to move forward with adding language to [its] recycling statutes, that this would be included as well. I’m not sure why."

Denver City Council first considered a plastic bag ban in December 2018, but ultimately decided to wait for the State Capitol to move forward with a similar bill during the 2019 session. But the legislation never came to fruition.

The 1993 law has never been used to challenge the cities with plastic bans in court, but in 2012 the Colorado Union of Taxpayers cited TABOR in a lawsuit against the City of Aspen over the twenty-cent fee it imposed on paper bags. The challenge failed in 2018 after the Colorado Supreme Court decided that the money collected by the city was a fee, not a tax.

The Denver City Attorney's Office says that it can't yet comment on a potential plastic bag ban, given that a formal resolution hasn't been drafted. "We don’t have any information about possible implications because it’s a multi-dimensional, hypothetical scenario at this point — especially with new councilmembers and unclear priorities at the legislature at play. We’d have to see a concrete proposal before weighing what that proposal could mean for the city," Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the Denver City Attorney's Office, wrote in an email to Westword.

Cullen believes that city council should have the right to consider such a resolution. "For us, waste management in general and recycling is an issue that happens at the local level and really very much is a local issue," Cullen says.

Councilmembers have said that they would look into any equity concerns that should arise with the ban, such as whether lower-income individuals and families would be disproportionately affected since reusable bags cost money.

"We can set up some kind of system where retailers give people free reusable bags for a certain period of time," Black says.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech is backing the ban.

"I believe that our low-income communities are resilient and that we need to support them, but that there’s no reason that this needs to be pitted against equity," she said at a council committee meeting on August 7 in which the ban was discussed.

Kniech explained that plastic bag bans have already been enacted in countries that are much poorer than the U.S.: "There are many countries with very low GDP and incomes that have managed to make this change." Kenya, which has a vastly lower GDP than the United States, has one of the strictest plastic bag bans in the world.

Even if council doesn't act in the coming months, the plastic bag extinction appears inevitable. A year ago, Kroger, which owns King Soopers, announced that it would phase out plastic bags by 2025