Eagle County towns ready as statewide plastic bag, Styrofoam ban heads to governor’s desk
Bill could have unforeseen consequences, one local expert says
A statewide initiative that seeks to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam has been sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. Eagle County leaders say local municipalities have been pushing to do the same for years.
In Eagle County, this bill’s passing would not be the hotly contested issue that it may be in other areas of the state, Avon Town Manager Eric Heil said Thursday.
“We’re very happy to see that there’s going to be a statewide ban of polystyrene (Styrofoam) and will support that the way it’s adopted,” Heil said.
Both Vail and Avon have instituted a ban on plastic bags and a 10-cent fee for paper bags, Vail in 2015 and Avon in 2018.
The town of Avon tried to ban expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam last year, but this effort was obstructed by an old state law prohibiting local government from banning specific kinds of plastic materials or products, Heil said.
Rep. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, led an effort to rid the state of this law last year but the initiative failed to make it out of committee.
If signed, House Bill 21-1162 would repeal the law and set a series of deadlines for a statewide plastic bag and Styrofoam ban.
Under the bill, retailers and other businesses statewide would be required to implement a 10-cent fee for the use of plastic and paper bags by Sept. 1 of this year, according to the bill.
A ban on plastic bags is set to follow on Sept. 1 of next year, with the only exception being bags that were purchased before that date and even those must be used by March 31, 2023.
Once the plastic bag ban is in effect, stores can only offer recycled paper bags with a 10-cent fee attached to them, according to the bill. This fee can be raised if a local municipality or county desires to do so.
Food assistance programs would not have to charge the 10-cent fee.
The last piece of the bill is a ban on Styrofoam, which would take effect in January of next year. As with the plastic bag ban, businesses will be allowed to use previously purchased inventory until it runs out.
Reducing the valley’s reliance on these kinds of non-recyclable materials is crucial to protecting the beautiful mountain environment we all love, said Melissa Kirr, the senior sustainability director for Walking Mountains Science Center.
“We often say ‘just throw that away,’ but there is no away because it actually goes somewhere and where it goes is to what we call a landfill or the dump,” Kirr said. “The landfill is part of our habitat and it’s in a beautiful spot here in Eagle County.”
“… And when that fills up and we have to cap it off, it’s going to be really hard to find another space in Eagle County where we can actually dig a hole and bury our trash,” she added.
Styrofoam is estimated to take more than 1 million years to break down once it arrives at Eagle County’s landfill in Wolcott, she said. Instead, it breaks down into smaller pieces and, along with other trash, produces methane — one of the main greenhouse gases. It also produces toxic runoff that Kirr called “landfill coffee,” which must be retained in ponds and is harmful to the surrounding ecosystem.
Plastic bags and Styrofoam are two of the biggest contaminants in the county’s recycling stream, making it more difficult for recyclable materials to be used again, Kirr said.
Littering of these materials would also likely decline under the ban, she said, something that Heil said the town of Avon has already noticed since enacting its ban.
Vail Honeywagon, Eagle County’s primary solid waste management service, has taken a neutral stance on the bill. The agency’s sustainability director, Shawn Bruckman, explained that there are many benefits to the legislation, but it will also come with some unintended consequences.
“We are very, very supportive of sustainable solutions for material management, but sometimes we don’t think of all sides of the coin,” Bruckman said.
On the plus side, Bruckman echoed Kirr’s statements about contamination in the county’s recycling and compost. Especially when it comes to compost, Stryrofoam is a big problem.
“If Styrofoam gets into our compost processes, it’s nearly impossible to get out,” Bruckman said. “Plastic bags can really cause big problems in recycling facilities. … When plastic bags get into the sorting equipment, they cause large shutdowns that are really time-consuming and make it more expensive for all of us to recycle.”
But recycling relies on finding an “end market,” businesses that want to purchase the materials to use again in their manufacturing process, Bruckman said. There are not enough of these businesses in the area, and Bruckman has spent a lot of time trying to convince innovative companies to come to Colorado.
“As we continue to ban materials, we continue to push away end markets,” Bruckman said.
This is problematic because, while the bill bans plastic bags from grocery stores and retailers, non-recyclable soft plastics will continue to be a part of our everyday lives, but we will likely see less options to dispose of them beyond the landfill, she said.
“Grocery stores used to have bag collections out front that you could recycle your plastic bags and that was the only sustainable place to recycle soft plastics in the valley,” she said. “Now that grocery stores are not providing plastic bags, they no longer provide that recycling outlet either.”
Local leaders said they do not anticipate the bill being a significant impediment on the business sector.
“Most places seem to have adapted pretty quickly to the changes that have happened on a more local level,” said Chris Romer, the president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership. “The businesses will have a couple years to find new product and new vendors. … When it comes to government regulations, more time is generally a good thing.”
The move away from Styrofoam and soft plastics is quickly becoming a nationwide trend, Romer said, and it is advantageous for Colorado to get ahead of the curve.
Sustainability Coordinator for Eagle County John Gitchell said that, if anything, some businesses may have to adjust to the increase in cost that comes with non-Styrofoam takeout containers.
The difference between Styrofoam and the next cheapest alternative is a matter of cents, Heil said, but this can be significant for some businesses.
“… If they make it a statewide rule, it puts all food businesses and restaurants on the same level requirement that, you know, someone’s not allowed to use something that’s less expensive than somebody else,” he said.
As far as the revenue generated by the bag fees go, businesses would be required to give 60% of revenue to local government and could keep the remaining 40% to themselves.
The bill also places limitations on how local municipalities and counties can use the money generated, mandating that it should be used to cover costs associated with enforcing the fee and to fund waste diversion programs like recycling and composting.
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org