Citing COVID-19, Denver Delaying Grocery Bag Fee by a Year

Plastic bags just received a new lease on life in Denver.
Plastic bags just received a new lease on life in Denver. Teague Bohlen
In December 2019, commenting on the soon-to-be-passed grocery bag fee ordinance, Denver City Council president Jolon Clark was optimistic about council's efforts to limit pollution.

"This is just the beginning, and I'm excited for everything that is to come," he said.

But Denver's grocery bag fee program won't be coming anytime soon, since the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back its start date by a year.

"While I am disappointed that we are delaying the Bring Your Own Bag program, it is the right thing to do now during the coronavirus. Because of challenging economic conditions and burdens on retailers, shoppers and city staff, delaying the program will ensure proper implementation of the law to best serve Denver residents," says Councilwoman Kendra Black, who just filed a resolution to push back the program's start from this July to July 2021.

Black says that all of the other members of council support the postponement; they'll vote on the resolution next week.

The move to delay Denver's bag fee comes a little over a month after Governor Jared Polis instructed municipalities to suspend single-use bag fees and bans, pointing out that using disposable bags can limit the spread of COVID-19.

"We’re pretty much focused on other things that are more important right now. Implementing that program would be a challenge in these times," says Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council. In particular, his members are determining how to enforce new Denver mandates requiring shoppers to wear masks in grocery stores.

The initial ordinance to enact a bag fee in Denver had garnered unanimous support and praise from members of Denver City Council and even industry stakeholders such as Howes.

"Our goal is to use this model ordinance throughout the state whenever any other city wants to do something similar," Howes said at a December council committee hearing.

Once the Bring Your Own Bag measure takes effect next year, grocery stores, gas stations and other retailers will be required to charge ten cents per single-use bag, whether plastic or paper. Denver will take six cents for its treasury, while the store will keep four.

In pitching the fee, Black noted that Denver residents use approximately 200 million plastic bags each year, many of which end up in landfills or rivers, or are caught in trees. If local shoppers drop their single-use bag usage by 70 percent, she calculated, Denver will pull in $1.8 million in fees from the remaining 30 percent who continue to use disposable bags; that money is earmarked for education and marketing about the program, reusable-bag giveaways, and administrative and enforcement overhead costs.

The fee will only apply to check-out bags, not those used to wrap items such as fresh vegetables or fish. Food stamp recipients will be exempt from paying the bag fee.

Denver's ordinance largely mirrors Boulder's, which took effect in 2013. Only six months after Boulder's fee program was implemented, the city saw a nearly 70 percent drop in the use of single-use bags, according to the Daily Camera.

Denver City Council had considered instituting disposable-bag bans or fees for years, but members were concerned that such a proposal could violate a 1993 state law that prevents municipalities from banning certain plastics. A move to repeal that law failed in committee in February; however, since Denver's program involves a fee and not a ban, it won't actually conflict with state law.

Once Denver's fee program finally takes effect, that is.
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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.