Denver City Council Praises Grocery Bag Fee

Denver City Council Praises Grocery Bag Fee
Owen Parrish/Flickr
During last night's Denver City Council public hearing about the proposed grocery bag fee, Councilman Chris Hinds began his remarks by praising his colleague, Kendra Black, who's been championing the initiative.

"It's one thing to accomplish something that is difficult. There is something even harder: The next step beyond that is to make it look easy," Hinds said about Black on Monday, December 16.

Black got both stakeholders and her fellow councilmembers to support the initiative, making the public hearing a non-controversial formality a week before the ordinance will be approved by council in a final vote.

The "Bring Your Own Bag" measure, as Black calls it, will take effect in summer 2020 and require that grocery stories, gas stations and other retailers charge ten cents per single-use bag, whether plastic or paper. Stores will keep four cents, while the City of Denver will get six.

In pitching her ordinance to fellow councilmembers, Black noted that Denver residents use about 200 million plastic bags each year, the vast majority of which end up in landfills or rivers or stuck in trees. If local shoppers drop their single-use bag usage by 70 percent, the city will pull in $1.8 million in fees from the remaining 30 percent that continue to use disposable bags. The money the city gets from the fee will be used for education and marketing about the fee program, reusable-bag giveaways, and administrative and enforcement costs.

Denver stores will also have to monitor bag usage and report data to the city. Money from the fee will be due on a quarterly basis. A year after the ordinance's approval, the city will form a task force to analyze the data and recommend any necessary changes to the initiative.

The fee will only apply to bags that customers receive at checkout, not those used to wrap things such as fresh produce or fish. Food stamp recipients will be exempt from paying the fee.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration unveiled a rule related to work requirements for food stamps that could lead to an estimated 688,000 people losing their benefits. However, no one on council raised the issue at Monday's meeting, and Black has previously stated to Westword that she is unsure of how Trump's rule would impact the grocery bag fee.

The initiative has gotten buy-in from a wide range of different stakeholders, including the retail industry. 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 a city council committee hearing earlier this month.

"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, at the December 3 hearing.

Denver's ordinance is based on the City of Boulder's, which took effect in 2013. Six months after it was initiated, the city saw an almost 70 percent drop in the use of single-use plastic and paper bags, according to the Daily Camera.

Denver City Council has previously looked into a disposable bag ban or fee in prior years but hasn't moved forward with any legislation, since such a bill could violate a 1993 state law that prevents municipalities from banning certain plastics. However, even with this law on the books, eleven other municipalities in Colorado have gone forward with bans or placed fees on plastic bags.

In 2012, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers sued the City of Aspen over its twenty-cent paper bag fee, citing TABOR. That lawsuit failed in 2018 after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the money collected by Aspen was a fee, not a tax.

Kirsten Crawford, a city attorney who provides legal advice to Denver City Council, laid out her view on the difference between a fee and a tax at Monday's meeting.

"A regulatory fee has to be reasonably related to the program, not specifically limited to services the government provides, but a regulatory program," Crawford said, adding, "The predominant purpose of this fee is to alter the reduce the use of single-use plastic."

Readying for the coming passage of this ordinance, councilmembers noted that they're looking forward to enacting similar measures that can lessen how much the city pollutes. "This is just the beginning, and I'm excited for everything that is to come," said Denver CIty Council President Jolon Clark.
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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.