An omnibus bill that would eventually ban single-use plastics, such as grocery bags and polystyrene food containers, is likely to be among the first bills introduced when the General Assembly resumes business next week.

The bill will be sponsored by Reps. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton and Alex Valdez, D-Denver. The 2021 bill will combine three measures that were all defeated in the 2020 session. 

Two House bills, to ban single-use plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, moved out of House committees but were dismissed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The third was on pre-emption. That's a state law that prohibits local governments from banning certain kinds of plastics in their communities, and that 2020 bill died in a Senate committee with the support of the committee's Democratic chair.

All three issues will be part of the bill that Cutter and Valdez intend to introduce, they told reporters Tuesday.

Cutter said the sponsors are still making changes to the bill, to address what she called the "most egregious offenders: single use plastic bags and Styrofoam." The measure won't include plastic stirrers or straws. The latter is omitted because some in the disability community say straws, especially those not made from paper, are a lifesaving tool. A 2018 NPR report said that some of the alternatives to plastic "fall apart too quickly or are easy for those with limited jaw control to bite through."

The bill intends to define what kind of plastics will be prohibited based on thickness, weight and plastic bag handles. 

The timeline for the ban is also multifaceted, according to Valdez. He said they want a phased approach, to allow customers to be comfortable with the process and to allow restaurants and retailers time to make the changes and use up existing inventory.

On the pre-emption issue, Valdez explained that their goal is to create a statewide standard for restaurants and retailers to have time to make changes before the elimination of preemption. The bill will be written to say no local government can do less than the state standard, he said. But Cutter also indicated pre-emption, a bill that was killed by a Democratic-controlled Senate committee last year, could be a negotiating lever.

The last piece of the bill — on enforcement — is still being worked out, according to sponsors. "Our goal is to change behavior and not be punitive," Cutter said. 

During a news conference hosted by Environment Colorado, advocates for plastic bans talked not only about the impact of disposable plastics on landfills and oceans, but they also claimed plastics contribute to climate change.

Hannah Collazzo, the state director for Environment Colorado, said disposable plastics contribute to greenhouse gases and will make up 20% of all oil consumption through 2050.

Cutter, who sponsored the 2020 legislation to ban polystyrene, said less than 10% of all plastics ever created have been recycled, and only 30% are still in use. 

Cutter claimed the oil and gas industry is accelerating production of plastics and is expected to quadruple in the next 30 years. This is harmful to human and animal health, she said, and plastics in landfills directly impact climate change. "It's time to chip away at the use of plastics."

Valdez, who sponsored both the pre-emption bill and the ban on single-use plastics in 2020, added that some people claim because of the pandemic that it isn't the time to move forward on a ban. People can always find a reason to do that, he said. "This is the time."

During the pandemic, restaurants and retailers have stepped up their use of disposable plastics as a public health measure.

It doesn't have to be that way, according to Megan Ossola, owner of the Butcher & Baker Café in Telluride. Ossola is a member of Good Business Colorado, a left-leaning business organization that also backs the bill. 

Ossola said she is on the frontline of the climate crisis as it relates to plastics. The cost of packaging has surged during the pandemic, she said, tied to an increased demand for takeout and food delivery. 

She noted that polystyrene used to be the only option for carryout, and 12 years ago, when she started her restaurant, it was almost impossible to find containers that weren't made of plastic.

"I now have purveyors from environmentally-friendly packaging beating down my door."

She did admit that on a per-use basis, that some of the environmentally-friendly packaging — paper cups instead of Styrofoam, for example —  is more expensive, at between one and two cents per piece. But restaurant owners are "nimble and forward-thinking, and I don't think this is much of an ask." She said she also believes as the pandemic winds down and there is less takeout and carryout, that the prices for environmentally-friendly packaging will decrease as competition for business increases.

Recycling isn't the only answer, either, according to Randy Moorman, a lobbyist for Eco-Cycle.  "We can't solve our pollution crisis and recycle our way out of it," he said Tuesday. Moorman estimated that 6.6 billion tons of plastics have landed in oceans, rivers and landfills, and many plastics cannot be recycled. Not enough companies are buying recycled materials to make into new products. In addition, some plastics degrade during the recycling process, which means those plastics can only be recycled a few times, unlike aluminum or glass, which can be recycled many times. Plastic bags cannot be recycled as they damage recycling machines, he explained. 

As to polystyrene, Moorman claimed it leaches toxins into the food. 

"The lifecycle from fossil fuel...to the waste produced all contribute to climate conditions," adding that what's needed now is systemic change. 

Valdez said he traveled to California recently, and saw a bag that was thick, disposable and printed on the front: 125 uses and hand-washable. That's a direction where the sponsors want to see consumers headed, he explained. "We want to encourage people to reuse the things that can be reused," Cutter added.

Sonia Riggs, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said, "We haven't taken a position on this bill yet, and won't until it's introduced. That said, COVID has shined a light on how cumbersome and confusing it is to have different regulations in Colorado's counties and cities — it makes it very difficult for restaurants to understand how to comply. This bill draft, as we understand it, presents the same issue with plastics regulation — the potential for more than 300 different laws to be enacted with regards to plastics around the state. Restaurants are facing the gravest crisis in living memory — we ask legislators to continue to consider the unintended consequences of any proposed legislation on this industry, which is already teetering on the brink."

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