ASPEN - A fee on consumers for all paper and plastic bags provided by Aspen grocery stores could become reality as soon as early summer, depending on whether the Aspen City Council embraces a proposed ordinance that's currently being crafted.
Ashley Cantrell, environmental health specialist for the city of Aspen, said she's working on an ordinance she hopes to present to the council in March. Cantrell also is planning to meet with her counterparts in Basalt, Carbondale, Snowmass Village and perhaps Glenwood Springs with the goal of making the paper and plastic bag fee a valleywide initiative.
The fee charged to shoppers at grocery stores - which could range from 5 cents to 20 cents per bag - is one option that municipalities throughout the Roaring Fork Valley are considering as a way to reduce the overall usage of bags. Despite being recyclable, the bags are seen as environmentally unfriendly because voluntary programs to urge recycling the bags have failed to catch on with the general public.
"We've seen and heard a lot of complaints about a proposed fee," Cantrell said. "Many people say the city needs to start with voluntary reduction. We've been doing that for three years, and it hasn't worked out."
Cantrell said that Carbondale and Basalt appear to be moving in the same direction as Aspen on the issue. She said she's not sure about plans in Snowmass Village or Glenwood Springs, but she plans to meet with officials in both places to try to forge a common goal.
"Since the region seems to be on board, we would like to pass a fee together," she said.
Cantrell said all of the municipalities don't have to pass ordinances on bag fees at the same time. "We can pass our ordinance first, and they can use ours as a guide," she said.
Recent direction to Cantrell, provided by Aspen councilmen, stressed the need to start out slow with the fees, starting with grocery stores, which supply the greatest number of bags to local consumers and visitors. Money collected by the city would be used solely for waste-reduction programs.
Cantrell acknowledged that the issue has become somewhat controversial. Many in the community see the bag fees as another instance of government trying to tell people how to live.
"In general, response has been about 50-50, positive-negative," she said. "The idea of an across-the-board fee for all retailers has received the most negative response. It will be easier to do with the grocery stores. By targeting the grocery stores we would really get at the bulk of the bags being used for shopping."
As more information reaches the public, the community might start to see the benefits of such a program, Cantrell said. The city will give away reusable bags to consumers, display signage about the program's goals and develop a catchy slogan as ways of enlisting more community support for the reduction of bag use, she said.
"We want to give visitors and the community the word that it's coming," she said. "We need a consistent message, one that other towns also would be involved in."
And on the matter of what types of reusable bags will be provided for free or sold to locals and visitors, Cantrell said she's seeking input.
"We have to ensure that the bags are environmentally friendly, and they have to hold up to wear and tear," she said.
Tom Clark Jr., president of Clark's Markets Inc., said he supports the bag fees as long as the community at large believes it's a good idea. He said he would like "a level playing field," meaning that grocers throughout the valley should also be involved.
"I think it's a community decision. If the community decides it's something they're willing to pay for, I'm certainly on board. As far as I'm concerned, it's a positive," Clark said.
The city of Telluride recently took stronger measures, enacting a ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper bags. Clark said he hasn't heard any complaints about the ban or the fee from customers of his Telluride store.
"They've always used reusable bags there, more so than other communities," Clark said.
Aspen Councilman Torre said during Monday's council meeting that there is a lot of fear and misconception throughout the city about what Aspen is trying to do.
"The council still has a long conversation ahead of it about what should be implemented and why," he said. "We are seeking an agreeable action plan that doesn't cause any hardship. We're not trying to shove anything down anybody's throat."
With better information and understanding - and less promotion of aspects of the plan that tend to stir up fears - the community's mindset can change, Torre said.
"We can go from single-use plastic bags to a much better alternative," he said.
The Aspen Chamber Resort Association is conducting a survey among its members to gauge how they feel about bag fees. That survey won't be finished until later this week.
One question asks, "Do you support an ordinance by the Aspen City Council to charge consumers when they use plastic or paper bags at grocery stores?" Results through last Friday showed that 104 answered "no" and 87 answered "yes," for a 54 percent to 46 percent result.
Another question, worded more broadly, asks, "Do you support an ordinance by the Aspen City Council to charge consumers when they use plastic or paper bags at retail and other business establishments?" The response was 133 for "no" and 57 for "yes," a much wider gap of 70 percent to 30 percent.
ACRA spokesman Greg Fitzsimmons said Monday that the ACRA board has not taken a position on the proposed bag fee.
Cantrell said she will take into account any concerns by ACRA and others in the community while crafting the city's ordinance. "I can see from the survey that their members are more comfortable with fees at grocery stores than across-the-board fees," she said.