Can Aspen bag the bags? |

Can Aspen bag the bags?

Katie Redding
Aspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

Standing outside Aspen’s City Market grocery story on a recent Sunday, Tige Eads wants to talk about plastic bags. He has a good story. His wife was shopping at the store recently while employees were handing out free reusable totes.

“And people weren’t taking them,” he said, unbelieving.

Debbie Miller, the manager of the Village Market in Snowmass Village, is also surprised by the numbers of shoppers who still carry groceries in plastic bags. Although the store sells reusable bags for $1 each, there are still customers who come in every day, buy one thing and carry it out in a plastic bag, she said.

“It’s just amazing” how many bags are used at the store, said Miller.

Just stand outside of any grocery store in Aspen for a period of time to learn that the vast majority of grocery shoppers still use plastic bags.

But of late, at least some Roaring Fork Valley residents aren’t as comfortable as they once were with one-time plastic bag use. Recent media reports about phenomena like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, talk of successful plastic-bag bans in countries ranging from Rwanda to Bangladesh, and the wide availability of low-cost reusable bags have pricked the conscience of many who consider themselves green.

Though acknowledging that ridding the world of plastic bags might not do as much environmental good as closing all the coal-fired power plants in the United States, Nathan Ratledge of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency (CORE) argues that carrying groceries in reusable bags is something everyone can reasonably do.

But how much good will come of it?

About 12 million barrels of oil are used each year to manufacture plastic bags, says Ratledge. Though plastic bags account for only a fraction of oil use ” the United States alone uses 87 million barrels of oil a day ” Ratledge points out that plastic bags are an unnecessary use of oil.

It isn’t so much that the plastic bags fill up the landfill, Garfield County landfill manager Kraig Kuberry said. It’s that they tend to blow up and over the landfill fences and end up on adjoining property. Pitkin County Landfill manager Chris Hoofnagle agreed.

“If you think … you’re going to save the life of the landfill [by not using plastic bags], that’s not going to happen,” he said. “What they do is get caught in the trees. They’re all along the roadways.”

Although the county recycles the bags, Hoofnagle said that the cost of transporting the bags to market is greater than the money received for them. Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, has argued that although a ton of recycled bags can only be sold for $32, the cost of recycling that ton amounts to $4,000.

Hoofnagle says the landfill is so interested in having residents shun one-use plastic bags that it will give a free bag made of recycled plastic to anyone who asks for it.

“They really are a problem, because they blow everywhere,” said John Armstrong, ranger with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

Ratledge points out that unlike most trash, plastic bags don’t biodegrade. They photo-degrade instead, turning into smaller and more toxic petro-polymers. Because of their long life, they are ubiquitous ” on land, air and especially sea.

The bags, which account for more than 10 percent of the debris washed up on United States coastlines, have been found floating north of the Arctic Circle and as far south as the Falkland Islands. In the North Pacific, there is six times more plastic on the water’s surface than zooplankton ” meaning animals looking for food are likely to ingest plastic bags instead.

In 1957, the first plastic sandwich bags were introduced in America. Now, 51 years later, Americans use an average of 334 plastic bags per person annually.

But many other countries have reduced their consumption, sometimes dramatically, with government intervention. In 2002, for example, Ireland instituted a 15 cent tax per bag. The tax led to a 95 percent reduction in use.

In America, few municipalities have been successful with bans or taxes, said Ratledge. For example, Los Angeles has considered five anti-plastic bag ordinances in the last several years, he said, but none of them passed.

San Francisco has perhaps the most well-known ordinance, which bans all non-biodegradable bags ” but does not go so far as to ban non-reusable bags.

Now the upper Roaring Fork Valley, always interested in being an environmental leader, may be poised to take action against plastic bags.

In Aspen, CORE has recently launched a contest that pits Aspen against Telluride, to see who can use the most reusable bags between Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July.

The organization also currently has an online poll ( that seeks to gauge whether Aspen residents would rather see a ban or a tax on bags. After gathering data, CORE plans to approach the Aspen City Council about an ordinance on the matter.

Basalt, however, plans first to try asking its grocery stores to voluntarily stop using plastic bags.

The town’s “green team,” comprised of citizens, town staff and elected officials, recently asked member Phil Freedman to approach the manager of City Market with a request to stop using plastic bags. Freedman hopes to have an answer by the Green Team’s June 17 meeting.

Trail Daugherty, spokesperson for City Market/King Sooper’s, says the company does not support a “bag tax” or a ban, but prefers to provide incentives. When the company considers the soaring sales of its reusable bags (selling for $1 and $5) and its plastic bag recycling numbers (10 million bags have been collected and recycled by the company since August of 2007), it doesn’t believe there’s a need for a tax.

It remains to be seen whether incentives or disincentives will work better in the Roaring Fork Valley, but Armstrong can attest to the power of the latter.

About a year and a half ago he was buying groceries in Europe. When he got to the checkout, he realized the store had no bags.

“My initial reaction was ‘this is really inconvenient,'” said Armstrong. He had to load up his arms with his purchases.

“It struck home,” he said. “And I thought ‘this is wonderful.'”

From then on, Armstrong brought his own bags to the store.

“People would adapt if they weren’t catered to,” he said.

But Daugherty said general awareness spurred him to make the change to reusable bags. Sitting in so many boardroom discussions about plastic bags convinced him it was the right thing to do.

Still, even after he was convinced, it took him some time to make the change. Not being in the habit, he always forgot his reusable bags at home.

Eventually, he figured out that if he kept bags in each car, he couldn’t forget them.

To register your opinion with the Community Office for Resource Efficiency about local policy on plastic bags, go to, click on “programs” and find the “reusable bag program” link.

The site also includes more information and helpful links about plastic bags and why they’ve become controversial around the world.