Denver City Council Poised to Enact Ten-Cent Plastic, Paper Bag Fee

Are these worth ten cents?
Are these worth ten cents? Wachirawit Iemlerkchai / EyeEm
Denver could soon become a BYOB city. On Tuesday, December 3, members of a Denver City Council committee unanimously praised an ordinance, coined the "Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance Proposal," that would place a fee on bags provided by retailers.

“It is time for Denver to do this. And we need to do more," said Councilwoman Kendra Black, the initiative's main baker.

The ordinance, which Mayor Michael Hancock has endorsed, still needs formal approval from the full council in December. If it passes that hurdle, the fee would take effect in mid-2020 and mandate that grocery stores, gas stations and other retailers would charge ten cents per single-use bag, whether plastic or paper. Retailers would keep four cents, while the City of Denver would get six.

Black says that Denver residents use between 150 million and 250 million plastic bags each year. If consumers lowered their single-use bag usage by 70 percent, the city would pull in $1.8 million in fees from the remaining 30 percent that continued to use disposable bags. The money the city collects from the fee will be used for things like education and marketing about the fee program, reusable-bag giveaways, and administrative and enforcement costs.

The ordinance would call for stores in Denver to report bag usage data to the city and turn money over on a quarterly basis. In mid-2021, the city would form a task force to examine the data and recommend any necessary alterations to the ordinance. The fee would only affect bags customers get at checkout, not those used to wrap things like meat or vegetables. People who use food stamps would be exempt from paying the fee.

The initiative has gotten buy-in from industry stakeholders. Representatives from the Colorado Wyoming Petroleum Marketers Association, which represents gas stations and convenience stores, and the Colorado Retail Council testified in favor of the ordinance at the committee hearing.

"Our goal is to use this model ordinance throughout the state whenever any other city wants to do something similar," said Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council.

Denver is looking to Boulder for guidance on the initiative. Within six months after the ten-cent fee took effect there, Boulder saw an almost 70 percent reduction in the use of single-use plastic and paper bags, according to the Daily Camera.

Showing just how much support there was for this initiative during committee, the strongest disagreement came during a lighthearted exchange between Councilman Chris Hinds and president Jolon Clark about dog-poop bags. Hinds argued that grocery bags are not good for picking up dog poop, since they're non-biodegradable, and people should instead use bags specifically designed to clean up after pets.

"The poop bags that are specifically for dogs are biodegradable and compostable," Hinds said.

But Clark offered a quick rebuttal: "Not all dog poop bags are compostable."

Denver City Council has explored a disposable bag ban or fee in years past but hasn't followed through, since such a bill could violate a state law from 1993 that prevents municipalities from banning certain plastics. But eleven municipalities across Colorado have gone ahead with bans or placed fees on plastic bags anyway.

In 2012, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers challenged the city of Aspen's twenty-cent paper bag fee in court, citing TABOR. That legal claim failed in 2018 after the Colorado Supreme Court determined that the money collected by Aspen was a fee and not a tax.

Black previously told Westword that state lawmakers have assured her that they will repeal the plastics statute in the upcoming legislative session.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.