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FoCo plastic bag ban approaching finalization for April ballot

CSU Student smiles while wearing plastic bags
Colorado State University student Cienna Semsak campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags in Fort Collins at the Colorado State University Earth Day Festival, April 23, 2019. (Devin Cornelius | The Collegian)

Nota del editor: Puedes leer la versión en español de este artículo aquí.

Fort Collins voters will likely be looking at a locally tailored plastic bag ban and paper bag fee ordinance for the April 2021 municipal elections. 

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City Council approved the first reading of the referred ordinance designed to reduce plastic pollution by banning large grocers from providing plastic disposable bags to most customers.

The ordinance also creates a 12-cent fee on disposable paper bags, the proceeds from which will be split evenly between the grocers and the City. The City’s portion will be used entirely to fund a new plastic pollution mitigation and solid waste reduction program that will go hand-in-hand with supporting the bag ban.

If approved by voters, the ban would go into effect May 1, 2022. Future councils will be able to adjust the ordinance as needed, such as expanding the banned items list or changing the associated fee.

Though Council held concerns about ensuring equitable impacts and the potential conflict with state law, the first reading passed 5-2, with Mayor Wade Troxell and Councilmember Ken Summers voting against.

Here’s what to know about the plastic bag ordinance as it currently stands.

What does the ordinance say?

Large grocers, defined as retail stores in permanent buildings over 10,000 square feet, can no longer “provide a disposable plastic bag to a customer at the point of sale,” unless the customer is exempt under the low-income relief section of the ordinance.

City staff stressed the importance of the ban for supporting the City’s plastic pollution reduction priorities as well as the City’s 2030 zero waste goal.

About 10% of landfill municipal solid waste is plastic, according to the ordinance, and plastic bag recycling is difficult.

Disposable paper bags are still allowed, but they come with a 12-cent fee per bag. The grocer and City will split the fee revenue 50-50.

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That would net in about $787,500 a year for the City, presuming a 75% decrease in disposable bag usage after the ordinance based on other bag fees from around Colorado.

The fee revenue would be used to cover costs associated with administering and supporting the ordinance. For the City, the proposed plan is for a new plastic pollution mitigation and solid waste reduction program.

According to City documents, that program would include:

  • Providing reusable bags to residents and guests
  • Collecting the bag fees
  • Community education and outreach on waste reduction, particularly as relating to single-use bags
  • Supporting other programs and activities that support waste reduction goals

The fee revenue collected cannot exceed the costs of the program, and though City staff expect costs to be recovered once the fee starts, they do not expect to have to deal with excessive revenue.

The City’s Disposable Bag Fee Study estimates total costs between $795,000 and $1.38 million.

Won’t this have a disproportionate impact on low-income residents?

Equity remained a prime concern for council members who recognized many in the community cannot easily adapt to using only reusable bags or paying the new bag fee, whether due to lack of transportation or disability.

“It’s just not feasible for everyone to carry a reusable bag and use them no matter if we give it to them, so we need options for people to fit their life,” Councilmember Emily Gorgol said. 

One public commenter said the ban was “putting the burden on the working-class people of the community” and urged Council “to lead with equity.”

Currently, the low-income exemption to the fee applies to those who can present “a benefit card reflecting participation in a federal, state, county or City income-qualified aid program.”

Gorgol in particular has pushed for expanding the exemption beyond government qualification programs since those can be too narrow. 

Bag fee programs from other cities typically use even narrower exemptions based solely on enrollment in government food assistance programs, according to Lucinda Smith, environmental services director.

As such, City staff are working on more creative approaches to the exemption. The main one is keeping a stock of free “be our guest” reusable bags for grocers to provide at their discretion to anyone they see experiencing a barrier not covered in the ordinance, but council members still pushed for more expansive options.

“We do have populations where they do need to have a disposable option,” said Melanie Potyondy, the newest council member. “We have folks that wouldn’t be able to launder reusable bags (or) carry reusable bags.”

Council added a segment to the ordinance that mandates that the City will provide further assistance to those who need exemptions or access to free reusable bags, though exact solutions were left purposefully vague so staff could continue to work how best to do that. Details may be further discussed on second reading.

Troxell, who opposed the plastic bag ban for being “bad policy and bad timing,” said the most equitable option was to simply not implement the ban at all. 

Doesn’t state law prohibit local governments from banning plastic?

According to Colorado state law, “no unit of local government shall require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging or labeling for any consumer products.”

City Attorney Carrie Daggett said there was some disagreement about if this law means Fort Collins is preempted from enforcing a plastic bag ban, particularly since Fort Collins is a “home rule” city.

Home rule municipalities have the ability to “legislate with confidence on any and all matters of local concern,” though their relation to state statutes is sometimes ambiguous, according to the Colorado Municipal League.

Several Colorado cities from Aspen to Telluride currently have plastic bag bans, and nine Colorado cities have bag fees, according to The Colorado Sun.

Even Fort Collins almost established a 5-cent bag fee in 2014 before City Council repealed it due to a citizen’s petition, according to The Coloradoan.

But a ban still opens up a possibility for a lawsuit, and some council members were against asking voters to approve that.

Additionally, there is an effort in the state congress that would ban all single-use plastics and expanded polystyrene foam. It died last year after the pandemic hit, but Summers said state legislators have told him the bills are likely to pass this year.

“The legislature may do what has already been proposed to be done and maybe even take it farther,” Summers said. “If we felt like, regardless of state law, that we want to push ahead just because we think we can, then that becomes a matter of conscious for some and a matter of ‘is it going to really matter?’ because whatever we do can be undone by the state legislature.”

Councilmember Julie Pignataro said the state legislators she’s talked to have been supportive of the Fort Collins ordinance since it would give them an idea of what voter thoughts are. She said there’s also a strong chance the law prohibiting local regulation of plastics will be repealed this year, though it lost in 2020

Councilmember Ross Cunniff said that while “opinions vary, to put it lightly,” ultimately “having the action in the hands of voters” is the most important part. 

A City survey last month of about 700 respondents had showed 73% of respondents strongly (59%) or somewhat (14%) supporting the Fort Collins ordinance.

“Doing this locally, it really makes it Fort Collins-specific,” Gorgol said. “Do we know the state level is going to have this focus on equity and the approach that we’ve taken with engagement? Regardless of what happens at the state, I think it’s important to adopt something that’s right for Fort Collins. And I think ultimately, it will be up to the voters, and we’ll have a better understanding of where they sit.” 

Editor’s Note: A passage was changed for clarification. 

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.

 

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About the Contributor
DEVIN CORNELIUS
DEVIN CORNELIUS, Digital Managing Editor
Devin Cornelius is the digital managing editor for The Collegian. He is a fifth-year computer science major from Austin, Texas. He moved to Colorado State University and started working for The Collegian in 2017 as a photographer. His passion for photography began in high school, so finding a photography job in college was one of his top priorities. He primarily takes sports photos, volleyball being his favorite to shoot. Having been on The Collegian staff for 4 1/2 years, he's watched the paper evolve from a daily to a weekly paper, and being involved in this transition is interesting and exciting. Although Cornelius is a computer science major, his time at The Collegian has been the most fulfilling experience in his college career — he has loved every second. From working 12-hour days to taking photos in Las Vegas for the Mountain West Conference, he cannot think of a better place to work. Working as a photographer for The Collegian pushed him outside of his comfort zone, taking him places that he never expected and making him the photographer he is today. As the digital managing editor, Cornelius oversees the photos, graphics and social media of The Collegian along with other small tech things. Working on the editorial staff with Katrina Leibee and Serena Bettis has been super fun and extremely rewarding, and together they have been pushing The Collegian toward being an alt-weekly. Outside of The Collegian, he enjoys playing volleyball, rugby, tumbling and a variety of video games. When in Austin, you can find him out on the lake, wake surfing, wake boarding and tubing. You can expect that Cornelius and the rest of The Collegian staff will do their best to provide you with interesting and exciting content.

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