A short history of single-use bag fees, or how Aspen runs at the vanguard | AspenTimes.com

A short history of single-use bag fees, or how Aspen runs at the vanguard

Carbondale resident Hayley Wegel does some grocery shopping on a Tuesday morning in Aspen, providing her own reusable bags.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times archive photo

Aspen’s charge for single-use bags has been controversial, so much so it went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. 

In May 2018, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against TABOR advocates in an Aspen bag-fee lawsuit.

The Colorado Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, upheld Aspen’s fee on paper grocery bags, finding that the 20 cent charge was not a tax because it offset the costs of a municipal waste-reduction program.

Since 2012, the year after the Aspen City Council prohibited the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags at the two grocery stores in the city — City Market and Clarks Market —  single-use plastic bag restrictions have prevented an estimated 2.7 million plastic bags from being distributed in Aspen.

A 2013 Aspen Times article stated that, “The city of Aspen has collected $44,826 in fees associated with its plastic-bag-ban program since it was implemented in May 2012. Approximately $20,000 of that has been used to pay for public outreach and implementation.”

Aspen has been a leading city in the state to pass such stringent bag ordinances and fees and ban single-use plastic bags at grocers. 

Aspen’s influence rolled right downvalley and the Carbondale Board of Trustees approved an ordinance in October 2011, like Aspen’s ordinance, and banned plastic bags at grocery stores and placed a 20 cent charge on paper bags in grocery stores with 3,500 square feet or more.

The bag fee forerunners

Telluride was a step ahead, however, and banned plastic bags in October 2010 with a 10 cent price requirement on paper bags.

Boulder adopted a bag ordinance in November 2012, requiring grocery stores to charge 10 cents per plastic or paper bag effective July 2013. 

There were other cities throughout the nation beginning to ban plastics and charge for paper.

Westport was the first city in Connecticut to ban plastic bags in September 2008.

Seattle was the first major U.S. city to pass a legally enforceable bag ban. Seattle’s ban became effective on July 1, 2012, and prohibited disposable plastic bags in all grocery and retail stores.

Marshall County, Iowa, passed a single-use plastic bag ordinance for its unincorporated areas in April, 2009. The ban allowed stores to instead provide biodegradable, recycled paper, or reusable bags to customers. 

In Bethel, Alaska, city officials voted in July 2009 to ban plastic bags and takeout containers which went into effect in September 2010.

The North Carolina Legislature banned plastic in the Barrier Islands in June 2009. The ban was extended to all businesses in the three counties in 2010.

Nothing compared to the then-alarming 2009 Brownsville (Texas) City Commission’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags commonly given to buyers at grocery and retail stores. Shoppers are required to bring their own bags or pay a $1 surcharge to use stores’ single-use bags.

More changes ahead n Aspen

Aspen hasn’t gone that far, yet. But big changes are coming.

At the start of this year, Aspen retail stores were able to carry recycled paper carryout bags or single-use plastic bags only if they charged a 10 cent fee for each bag. 

The city of Aspen then further expanded restrictions on single-use carryout bags. 

On March 14, the City Council unanimously adopted and ordinance to extend a 20 cent fee on plastic bags to all the retail businesses, as many as 80 are affected.

Starting Jan. 1, 2024, Aspen stores will be prohibited from using plastic bags not already on hand. All bags distributed from the applicable stores will be required to use paper carryout bags made from 100 percent recycled content.

In addition, retail food establishments will be prohibited from distributing expanded polystyrene, Styrofoam, as a container for ready-to-eat foods.

This is all in line with a state law passed in 2021 that bans the distribution of all single-use plastic bags in Colorado starting in 2024, with some exemptions, as well as the Styrofoam ban.

“The bag ban discussions started in my first term 2003-2007, we were able to move it forward in my second term 2009-2013. There was a small amount of pushback, but it was enacted and complied with very easily,” said Mayor Torre.

“I supported eliminating plastic bags and encouraging reusable bags. I was not the biggest supporter of the 10 cent fee. I do not anticipate the bag fee to increase or reach 30 cents,” he said.

Landfilling waste accounts for 16 percent of the city’s 2020 community greenhouse gas emissions. 

At Pitkin County Dry Goods, customers are handed free, branded paper bags for no charge with a purchase. 

An employee at the Louis Vuitton phone operations center said that all customers, at all locations throughout the United States, get a free, trademarked paper-based bag with purchase.

“Yeah, I can’t imagine charging a customer 20 cents for a bag after they’ve just spent $1,500 at Louis Vuitton,” said Michelle Weeks, owner of Twinkle.

“I’ve been eating the costs for years. It’s just what you do and what is right,” she said.

Restaurants might face the biggest challenges with the upcoming restrictions, but looks like the buck, or 20 cents, isn’t being passed onto the customer at Aspen retail stores just yet.