ASK EARTHA: Banning Plastic Shopping Bags

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha, I want my town to ban plastic shopping bags. What can I do to make this happen?

I love your enthusiasm! Before we demand change from local lawmakers, we need to understand what we’re working with. In the state of Colorado, and in 12 other states across the country, there exists a statute that restricts towns, cities, and counties from banning or regulating any plastic products. That’s right, it’s illegal to ban things like plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam takeout containers.

That is why you may have seen your town adopt a plastic shopping bag tax or fee system ranging from 10 cents to 50 cents per bag instead of outright banning them. Yet there are some towns in Colorado, like Telluride and Aspen, that have banned plastic bags and charge a fee for paper bags, but they are holding back on expanding the ban to other items until the statute is repealed to limit the risk of a lawsuit.

Let’s take a look at what this statute does, the impacts it has on our communities, and how you can help write a new story.

The ban on banning plastics

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees recycling in the state, the statute comes from House Bill 1318 passed in 1993, which was an amendment to House Bill 1300 passed in 1989. It’s just 36 words that sealed our recent fate: “Local Government Preemption. 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.”

House Bill 1300 also requires labels – on every plastic container – identifying the type of plastic used to make those containers. That’s why your favorite tub of yogurt has a number 5 printed on it.

The intention of lawmakers at that time was to increase recycling rates. The bill even states that recycling “is a matter of statewide concern.” At the same time, the plastics industry wanted to make sure they would be safe from municipalities restricting or banning their products. They lobbied, and the result was 36 words protecting their economic interests.

We have to keep in mind though, that the national recycling rate in the U.S. has more than doubled since those 36 words were passed into law. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the national recycling rate was 16 percent in 1990. By, 2017 it jumped to 35 percent. When the preemption was passed in 1993, lawmakers were working on ways to increase recycling rates in Colorado. They were not thinking about the long-term effects of single-use plastics on our communities.

The impacts on our communities

As we have seen in the past three decades since the preemption was put in place, single-use plastics have overrun our communities. It’s not because of these statutes that plastics are so prolific in society. But, the statutes have kept communities from regulating the plastics that have become serious issues.

Take the common shopping bag for instance. They end up blowing around our streets, through the forests and getting caught in wetlands and waterways to wreak havoc on local wildlife. Yet, communities can’t get rid of them.

Single-use plastics add to our landfills and create cleanup costs for local governments. Some opposed to banning plastics have suggested that bans will drive business owners to buy costly alternatives that use more resources in the production process. Nope. Communities like ours are getting creative. The Town of Breckenridge partners with lodging companies to offer free reusable shopping bags for visitors. Frisco offers a reusable shopping bag exchange program and incorporates bags made from local recycled textiles from the Family and Intercultural Resource Center’s thrift stores.

What you can do

As an individual, the greatest impact you can have is to refuse these plastics in your daily life. Choose reusable options for your straws, shopping bags, to-go food containers, and any other single-use plastics.

It’s essential to call or send a letter to your state representative to support repealing this preemption statute. Senate Bill 20-010 – which would have repealed the preemption and allowed municipalities to create their own policies surrounding plastics recently died in a state Senate committee on Tuesday, February 4th. But don’t worry, there are other bills up for consideration that, if passed, will help reduce single-use plastics.

House Bill 20-1162 would prohibit food establishments’ use of polystyrene containers.

House Bill 20-1163 would prohibit stores and retail food establishments from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use plastic stirrers, single-use plastic straws, and expanded polystyrene food service products to customers at the point of sale.

So, next time someone mentions banning [enter plastic product here] see if they know about the preemption statute and tell them to contact their state representative to support repealing it and their local town council to consider fees on single-use plastics.

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