Plastic bags OK in Aspen; Telluride moves to ban ’em | AspenTimes.com

Plastic bags OK in Aspen; Telluride moves to ban ’em

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Aspen has yet to decide what, if anything, to do about discouraging the use of plastic bags at local grocery stores and other retail outlets, but Telluride recently adopted an ordinance banning the single-use plastic bag.

Telluride’s townwide ban, which takes effect March 1, 2011, was spawned by a reusable bag challenge that initially pitted Aspen and Telluride in a competition to reduce use of plastic bags. The challenge eventually grew to involve roughly two dozen Rocky Mountain towns, mostly in Colorado.

In the summer of 2008, Aspen and Telluride held the bag contest between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The two towns eliminated the use of an estimated 140,359 single-use shopping bags at their respective supermarkets between May and September – or 284 bags per store per day. Telluride beat Aspen soundly, using more than twice as many reusable bags per capita during the contest.

Then, from March 1 to Sept. 1, 2009, a second round of the contest involved a number of towns. Organizers included David Allen at Telluride’s New Community Coalition, Aspen’s Community Office of Resource Efficiency and the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

The goal of the challenge, and of Telluride’s ordinance, is to reduce the consumption of single-use, disposable bags, and to promote the use of reusable bags. Telluride’s new ordinance includes charging consumers a 10-cent fee for paper bags at grocery stores, but any retailer in town can voluntarily opt into the fee program, retaining 5 cents of the fee to cover administrative costs. The fee goes into effect Jan. 1; the plastic bag ban begins in March to give retailers time to give away their existing inventory of bags.

Last year, Telluride’s Allen testified at the state Legislature on behalf of a proposed bill that would have banned plastic bags statewide. It was defeated; opponents argued that since the bill only banned plastic bags, consumers would shift to taking paper bags.

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“That is why it was so important to address both plastic and paper bags in Telluride’s ordinance,” Allen said in a press release. “The main goal is to shift consumer behavior to use reusable bags, not substitute paper for plastic.”

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

Last year, Aspen contemplated charging a fee of between 5 and 25 cents for the use of paper or plastic bags at grocery stores, but the idea stalled.

Since then, the city’s Environmental Health Department has been exploring options to address the bag issue, including a biodegradeable version of the plastic bag, according to Lee Cassin, environmental health director.

That alternative has a drawback, though: “They don’t biodegrade unless you have a way to compost them,” Cassin said. That requires heat, and they need to be mixed.

Coming soon, however, may be a method to foster the composting of the bags.

The city and Pitkin County applied for a $94,000 Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity Act grant from the state last spring in order to buy a big grinder to mix and break up food waste, with the goal of directing Aspen’s food waste into the county landfill’s composting operation.

That grant has been awarded, Cassin said, and a pilot program using restaurant food waste is planned once the equipment has been secured. It’s possible biodegradeable bags could also be fed to the grinder, she said, though officials expect the system to require some experimentation before food waste is being successfully turned into compost at the landfill.

In the meantime, Cassin said her staff will discuss the approach Telluride has taken with the Aspen City Council.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if nobody uses paper bags in Telluride – if they all just use canvas,” she said.

Canvas bags are growing in popularity with consumers who bring the reusable bags to the store with them rather than stuffing their groceries into plastic bags. The non-biodegradeable polyethylene bags, or plastic bags, are made from crude oil and natural gas. Estimates of worldwide use of the bags vary widely – to as many as 1 trillion, noted The New York Times. Most are discarded after their initial use, being buried in landfills or blowing around as litter.

Aspen’s two grocery stores would welcome city action regarding plastic bags, according to Mayor Mick Ireland.

“They would love to have us do something. Then they could say, the government made us do it – then they wouldn’t have to hear the complaints,” he said.

Ireland suggested the issue should go to local voters.

janet@aspentimes.com