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In an effort to promote environmentally-friendly behavior, Denver is moving forward with its proposed ordinance for a plastic and paper bag fee, which would take effect in mid-2020. 

Two bills attempting to wean the public off the use of single-use plastics and polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam, passed the House Energy & Environment Committee on party-line votes Monday.

House Bill 1162 would prohibit restaurants and other food retailers from using polystyrene to package take-out food as of Jan. 1, 2022. Retailers that have those products in stock are allowed to use up that inventory so long as they can prove it was purchased before the bill’s effective date.

The bill is a rehash of a 2019 version that died in the Senate but with changes, according to Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, who said they want to avoid putting an unfunded mandate on schools and increasing costs for retailers.

“This is a conversation about waste; it clogs up our waterways” and land. It’s next to impossible to clean up and impossible to recycle, he said.

In states that have implemented Styrofoam bans, pollution has dropped by as much as 80% and without excess cost to industry, Singer claimed.

Co-sponsor Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, told the committee the volume of trash at landfills is alarming and there’s nowhere for it to go. “It’s not consistent with our vision of a green Colorado.”

Styrofoam takes centuries to degrade, and plastics break down into tiny particles, known as microplastics, that get into food and water. Even rainfall is now showing signs of microplastics, she said. There are alternatives, she said. “We don’t need Styrofoam.”

The bill was amended to give schools more time to implement the ban and to avoid creating a unfunded mandate, Singer said.

House Bill 1163 goes after single-use plastics, such as straws, coffee stirrers and plastic bags used in grocery or other retail stores.

Those plastics would be banned as of July 1, 2022. The bill originally also banned polystyrene, but was amended out of the bill since that issue is already being dealt with in HB 1162.

Plastics have made life easy, said Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver. The production of single-use plastics is expected to quadruple in the next 30 years, and plastics in the oceans will outnumber fish by then. Only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled, he said.

Under the bill, coffee stirrers would be eliminated, straws would be available only upon request, and the bill intends to eventually eliminate the use of plastic bags.

Under HB 1163, retailers who use plastic or paper bags would charge customers a ten cents per bag fee. Under an amendment adopted Monday, 60% of that fee would go to the city, or if not in a city to the local county government, to pay for recycling or composting costs. The other 40% would be retained by the retailer to cover administrative costs tied to the change, including purchasing paper bags.

While plastic bags would be eliminated entirely by July 1, 2022, Valdez told Colorado Politics that paper bags will continue to be available. The ban also would not apply to plastics used in grocery stores for sanitary purposes, such as for wrapping meat or produce, he said. Those on state or federal food assistance programs would be exempt from the bag fee, according to the amendment.

This is a way to change consumer behavior, said co-sponsor Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver.

Traditional recycling centers have trouble recycling plastic bags because they tend to clog up sorting machinery, Valdez told the committee.

Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes said her town sits on Gore Creek, which flows into the Eagle River, the main source of drinking water for her community. Managing plastic pollution coming from a tourist economy is daunting, she said. Her town has banned single use bags since 2013 and in 2019 tried to ban polystyrene for take-out food, but to avoid lawsuits made that ban contingent on passage of Senate Bill 10. That bill died in a Senate committee on Feb. 4, which Hymes called a disappointment.

Hymes said the plastic bag ban got little opposition from Avon retailers, and even though the polystyrene ban hasn’t been implemented, retailers are voluntarily reducing its use.

The bills drew opposition from Colorado Counties, Inc., based on its overriding of local control, according to CCI’s Daphne Gervais. “We prefer a local opt-in model,” she said. The Colorado Restaurant Association also opposed HB 1163, claiming that requiring customers to ask for straws put wait and bar staff in an awkward situation.

Lindsay Stovall of the American Chemistry Council said they support efforts to reduce trash, but the bill assumes alternatives to polystyrene are preferable. Banning those containers increases environmental impacts by doubling energy use to manufacture the alternatives. Colorado does have a solid waste problem, she said, but the ban on products that make up only 1% of the waste stream will do little to address solid waste and recycling issues.

Banning polystyrene will only increase litter from the alternatives, she said.

But opponents were greatly outnumbered by those who supported the bills, from environmental groups and mayors to school kids.

Ingrid Mortenson, a senior at DSST in Denver, said she spends her summers on the coast, fishing and diving. It’s made her passionate about the oceans. She plans to study marine biology, she said, and the biggest threat to the oceans is plastic.

“We’re so far away from the ocean in Colorado that we don’t see the impact” of discarded plastics. The only way to make drastic change is through legislation, and changing consumer options will allow people to make better decisions on behalf of the planet, she said.

The problem isn’t only the single-use plastic, said Ann Underwood of Fort Collins. It’s also the single-use mindset of the customer who uses it and then throws it away. “You as regulators have the power to solve this problem.”

Committee Republicans, however, said the bills, which include enforcement that could involve the attorney general, are too heavy-handed and that the market should be allowed to make the changes without regulation.

“This is like the mag ban for polystyrene,” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, referring to the 2013 law that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines. “This is going too far for Colorado and for small business owners.” Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, who advocated for a market-based solution, complained that the bills' sponsors never reached across the aisle to involve them.

“Contrary to what some of you might think, our side of the aisle cares about the environment, too,” he said. “We would like to work with you.”

Both bills passed on party-line votes. HB 1162 was sent to House Appropriations because it will increase costs for the Department of Corrections. And because it generates revenue for local governments, HB 1163 was sent to House Finance.

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