Denver City Council has taken aim at single-use plastics, voting unanimously on May 17 to require restaurants and delivery apps to provide single-use plastic products only upon request rather than automatically.
"I know we all have drawers in our kitchen that are full of old ketchup packets and soy sauce packets and forks that we will never use, and they will end up in the landfill," Councilwoman Kendra Black, who co-sponsored the bill, said at an April 28 meeting of a council committee considering the proposal. "The idea of this proposal is that if we don't get them to begin with, then we won't dispose of them and they won't end up in the landfill."
The new ordinance, which will take effect after the rules are finalized later this year, mandates that restaurants and delivery apps only add single-use items, such as utensils, chopsticks, napkins, straws and condiment packets, on request. A restaurant can still ask customers if they'd like those items, but can only add them to an order when customers respond affirmatively. There are a variety of other exemptions, though, including for meals provided for school systems and homeless shelters, and "programs that deliver meals to the elderly."
The Denver Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency will set up the rules for implementation. As approved by the city council, the ordinance sets up a complaint-based enforcement system, with violators receiving a warning for a first violation and a $999 fine for each subsequent violation in a single year.
The ordinance stirred up little controversy, unlike most issues involving restaurants and large delivery app companies. "How many times do we get bills with no opposition? I think that's pretty awesome," says Councilman Chris Hinds, a co-sponsor of the ordinance.
"What’s most important to us is that restaurants continue to have the ability to offer single-use plastic implements to customers rather than being strictly limited to waiting for customers to make the request. The ordinance as currently drafted addresses those concerns," says Mollie Steinemann, the Colorado Restaurant Association's manager of local government affairs.
"Last year, we began to roll out a utensil opt-in feature for select merchants to include only if the customer requests them, and we will continue to expand the utensil opt-in program throughout our app. We commend efforts to reduce the environmental impact of takeout and delivery orders and are eager to engage with all stakeholders on issues that impact our community," says Brianna Megid, a spokesperson for DoorDash.
Black has disagreed with delivery app companies on policy in the past. She pushed an ordinance that capped third-party delivery fees at 15 percent that council approved in October; that cap has been extended through mid-June.
With the single-use plastics ordinance, Black didn't seek an outright ban for a variety of reasons. Colorado has a law dating back to 1993 that forbids municipalities from banning certain plastics, though some lawyers argue that home-rule provisions give cities in Colorado the flexibility to enact plastics bans. State lawmakers have tried to repeal the law over the years; proponents of an attempt this year recently removed a provision in the bill that would have repealed the law. The proposal still calls for banning single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers at restaurants and convenience stores statewide.
Black points out that smaller steps, such as establishing the single-use item opt-in, are easier to pass and can still create large changes.
"An outright ban would invite a lot of opposition, and instead this bill has widespread support," Black says. "It gets people thinking and helps them be more aware of the waste that we all create, and all of the single-use packaging items that we have. Nationwide, only 8.5 percent of plastic is actually recycled."
Two years ago, Black successfully championed the Bring Your Own Bag ordinance, which will place a ten-cent fee on every single-use bag, whether plastic or paper, requested at grocery stores, gas stations and other retailers. It was originally supposed to take effect in July 2020, but council delayed the start of the program because of "challenging economic conditions and burdens on retailers, shoppers and city staff" during the pandemic, Black explains.
But starting this July, you'll need to bring your own bag.
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