Questions abound regarding Aspen’s proposal to charge for grocery bags
August 23, 2011
ASPEN – The introduction of an ordinance to impose a 20-cent fee on each paper or plastic bag provided to Aspen grocery-store customers sparked a lot of questions at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
The council voted 4-1 to support the ordinance on first reading, with the lone nay vote coming from Adam Frisch. Most council members expressed a desire for more details, including how the city’s Environmental Health Department arrived at 20 cents instead of a higher or lower figure. They also cautioned against any measure that would overburden the two grocery stores that would collect the fees, City Market and Clark’s Market, and debated whether the stores should keep a greater percentage of the fee than the 5 percent city staff proposed.
Mayor Mick Ireland allowed a few audience comments on the proposal after the council discussion. Aspen residents and anyone with thoughts on the matter will have another chance to weigh in when the ordinance comes up for a full public hearing and possible final vote on Sept. 12.
Frisch – who during his spring campaign for a council seat distributed free reusable bags made of orange cloth to potential voters – didn’t say exactly why he was voting against the ordinance on first reading. Generally, ordinances pass unanimously upon introduction and receive greater scrutiny upon final reading and a full public hearing.
But earlier in the discussion, Frisch had a lot of questions, as did other council members. Many of them also wondered aloud what would happen if the ordinance, a disincentive to the production and use of environmentally unfriendly plastic and paper bags, would achieve its intended purpose or merely create a windfall for city coffers.
“The problem I have [overall] is the fee level – I’m not sure if the sweet spot is a size to cause enough pain to get them to change,” Frisch said. “Why isn’t it a dollar? Or is the fee the charge to collect for what it cost for that bag to be thrown into the environment? How did we get to that number?”
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Councilman Derek Johnson said he feels that the 5 percent of the fee that grocers would get to keep – up to $100 per month – is extremely low. Grocery operators are likely to incur a lot of costs in training employees about the new ordinance and also face a loss of productivity as customers go over their options while standing in checkout lines. It also would require reprogramming electronic registers, a technology cost that has yet to be estimated.
“I think we should get back with the grocers,” Johnson said. “They’ve been willing to talk. At least in the first year, we’re looking at a significantly larger [cost] to the grocers. …We need to understand what are the true costs.”
Johnson’s own estimates show that the city could raise more than $1 million annually through the fee if residents don’t buy into the idea of bringing their own reusable bags to grocery stores.
“And that’s not the intent,” he said. “If we’re not successful, we need to kind of figure out what we’re going to be doing with that money. We need to give that a little thought. This is not a plan to bring in millions for the city.”
Councilman Steve Skadron said he thought 20 cents per bag might be too aggressive, and asked environmental health specialist Ashley Cantrell, who has been spearheading the initiative, to return to the next meeting with thoughts on why a 5-cent or 10-cent fee is not under consideration.
Nathan Ratledge, director of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, spoke to the question of the fee level. He said that 20 cents was a subjective level that other towns in the Roaring Fork Valley have deemed as something more likely to get consumers’ attention without hitting them too hard in the wallet.
“How do you rate awareness?” Ratledge said. “I don’t think it’s a pain threshold, per se, but you want people to notice it. Other communities have made it as low as 5 cents. The number has been thrown around in Aspen and Basalt for probably over a year, and I think general consensus came down at 20 cents. … It was more of an ongoing community conversation with a variety of stakeholders than trying to calculate the number of tons of carbon you’re offsetting.”
The ordinance would implement the fee on Nov. 15, following a public outreach campaign to educate consumers about the problems associated with plastic bags. Council members discussed the possibility of waiting until early next year, or after the winter, to start the program.
Councilman Torre noted that he originally favored an outright ban on plastic bags provided by retailers in Aspen, but said he would go along with a 20-cent fee at grocery stores in lieu of stronger measures. Torre – who also has been working closely with Cantrell on the city’s campaign to promote municipal tap-water use over the purchase of plastic water bottles – wants to start the fee on Nov. 15 instead of waiting until 2012.
The city’s portion of revenue from the fee would educate residents, businesses and visitors about, the importance of reducing the usage of fossil-fuel energy to make disposable bags and the effect of the bags on waterways and the environment.
Revenues also would fund programs and infrastructure that allow the Aspen community to continue to reduce waste and recycle.