Paper or plastic in Aspen? How about neither |

Paper or plastic in Aspen? How about neither

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Aspen Times shopperA shopper departs Aspen City Market with plastic bags in hand.

ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday showed general support for requiring a fee on every disposable paper or plastic bag used during checkout at local retail outlets, stopping well short of recommending an outright ban on the environmentally unfriendly shopping sacks.

Also during Monday’s work session, council members appeared to favor a regional approach to the issue of reducing the use of single-use bags in lieu of moving ahead with a city-only program.

The basic consensus on the bags issue was a response to the city Environmental Health Department’s query about which direction the city should take: a fee or an outright ban. The topic has been growing momentum for more than two years, ever since a 2008 competition between Aspen and Telluride led to the elimination of more than 14,000 plastic shopping bags from the environment.

Over the coming months, officials in Aspen and other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley are expected to discuss common ways to deal with the problem. Ashley Cantrell, a city environmental health specialist, said any program that’s implemented would begin gradually, perhaps starting with heavy bag users such as grocery stores and later finding its way to smaller retail specialty outlets.

Cantrell explained to council members that revenue the city collects from a bag fee would be placed in a special government fund that could only be used for waste-reduction programs. Her department recommends a 5 cent or 10 cent fee, per bag.

In a memo she wrote to the council last week, she said the money could be used to cover any training or set-up costs incurred by participating retail stores and to provide free reusable bags, such as cloth sacks, to locals and visitors. The money also would cover the educational-outreach component of the program.

“This approach not only reduces paper- and plastic-bag use in Aspen, but also provides a funding source that can be used to provide resources to the community to eliminate any burden caused by the fee,” Cantrell wrote.

During the meeting, Councilman Torre argued for an approach stronger than fees, saying other places in America and abroad are implementing bans on disposable bags.

“I just want them gone. I’m looking for the hardest measures possible,” Torre said. “The entire country of Italy – this is little, teeny Aspen – the entire country of Italy has a ban in place … and has taken this on.”

After the meeting, the councilman maintained that he would like to see swifter action in the form of a ban instead of a fee. But he said he would go along with the consensus because it represents forward motion on the matter.

“I’m happy to support any steps that make progress on this issue,” Torre said.

He added that any initiative, local or regional, will require community support. Local governments would prefer for such environmental programs to find success without the need for legislative enforcement, Torre added.

That’s not always possible. Nathan Ratledge, director of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, a local nonprofit that promotes environmental stewardship, said in some cases, voluntary recycling programs may do more to increase the carbon footprint than reduce it.

“Roughly, only 3 to 5 percent of plastic bags get recycled,” Ratledge said. He pointed out, as Cantrell did earlier in the meeting, that Aspen’s recycling program is highly labor intensive.

“You have to get the recyclables to a center, then you have to package them, then send most of them to Denver,” he said. “So your net energy gain is probably negative, which is not the goal.”

In October, Telluride passed a new ordinance that places a townwide ban on plastic bags beginning March 1.

The ordinance includes charging consumers a 10-cent fee for paper bags at grocery stores. Any retailer in town can voluntarily join the program, retaining 5 cents of the fee to cover administrative costs. That fee goes into effect Jan. 1.

The first major U.S. city to ban the use of non-degradeable plastic bags at supermarkets, as well as drug stores and large retail outlets, was San Francisco.

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