They clog up waterways. They end up in landfills, where they take thousands of years to break down. And they kill turtles and dolphins. Plastic bags of the sort used in grocery stores are a top enemy for environmentalists, and Westword has learned that some Denver officials are considering policies that would discourage folks from using them -- possibly even a ban.
Now all you plastic bag-hating, dolphin-loving folks out there, don't get too excited. From what we can tell, the city is in the very early stages of researching this -- and a possible fee tied to plastic bags at this point seems much more likely than an outright ban, although nothing is certain at this stage.
We first got wind of this possibility last week, when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock spoke at a Colorado Municipal League conference in Breckenridge. While there, he spent a good chunk of time praising the early impacts of his controversial camping ban. But the conversation during the luncheon took a turn when Sweetie Marbury, a member of the Durango City Council, stood up and asked Hancock when Denver was going to get on the right side of the plastic bag issue and ban them.
"Colorado, when I was a kid, was always the leader in being green and in the environment," Marbury said. "When I look across the United States, there are very few towns in Colorado that have taken up this issue [of plastic bags].... There's a handful of towns in Colorado," including Carbondale and Aspen, "but...there are thirty towns in Alaska. There's more than that in California. Olympia, Washington and Austin, Texas have banned plastic bags."
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She continued, volume increasing: "We see it floating across the river, chasing us down the street and attached to lots of fence posts.... I'm going to encourage people here to go back home and take up this issue.... It's something that's very passionate in my heart. I'd like to ask Denver's mayor, when is Denver going to talk about the issue?"
"Yeah, when are you going to ban plastic bags?" chimed in Sam Mamet, CML's executive director, hosting the Q&A with Hancock.
"Today!" the mayor said, joking.
More seriously, Hancock said he was interested in the issue and has discussed it with some members of Denver's city council.
"You raise a very important question," Hancock said, speaking in front of municipal leaders from across the state. "I've had a conversation with a member of the Denver City Council who wants...an ordinance to ban plastic bags.... One of the things he and I talked about is, of course, the alternative, so that it's not a regressive effort where people who are barely able to walk to the grocery store to eat have to now figure out how they pay for their bags as well. How do we do that? So he is considering it, looking at other towns, best practices.
"I just want to make sure we address those concerns," Hancock added.
Page down to read more about possible actions against plastic bags in Denver. After the event, Westword tried to figure out which council member the mayor was talking about. But after a number of calls, we can only confirm that council members Debbie Ortega and Susan Shepherd -- both women, contrary to the "he" Hancock used at the event -- are interested in exploring policies that would crack down on plastic bags.
A policy director with Ortega's office told Westword last week that the councilwoman has done some early research on a possible fee that would discourage people from using bags. The fee would also generate revenue -- which she had discussed awhile back with the mayor's office. She's looked into an outright ban, but there is often strong opposition to that from retail groups.
Officially, the mayor is vaguely interested in a decidedly uncommitted way. Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller sent us this statement:
The Mayor acknowledges that plastic bag restrictions and fees are a sustainability practice that a number of cities across the nation have adopted, including a handful here in Colorado. Mayor Hancock will always move forward with solutions that are right for Denver and the City is not actively pursuing these fees at this time.
Westword asked Shepherd about plastic bags after a press conference on the city budget last week, and she displayed considerably more enthusiasm.
"I'm interested, because we don't need all this stuff landing in our waste stream and in our rivers and in our water shed," she said. "There are plenty of other opportunities.... Some of the things that we are talking about is a small fee on bags. That would be ideal."
An outright ban would face a lot of opposition from the plastic bag and grocery lobby, she said, noting that there was opposition when a possible ban was proposed in the council a few years ago.
"There are different people in council now that might be more open to this," she said. "But it will be complicated, so it's going to take awhile to work it out."
Echoing the concern Hancock raised, she added, "We are going to have to be really sensitive.... We don't want large, low-income families to be disproportionately affected when they go to the grocery store."
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Shepherd said that in the fall, she toured the local landfill in Arapahoe County and officials there said the plastic bags gum up their systems at the recycling facilities.
Despite the obvious environmental benefit, she said, "There will be very strong and organized opposition, which sometimes overwhelms grassroots communities. But it's obviously the right thing to do."
More from our Environment archive: "National Renewable Energy Lab is building homes of the future that are smarter than you"
Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin.