TELLURIDE – The prognosis for plastic bags in this community got a little poorer after the Telluride Town Council during a worksession on Tuesday directed staff to craft an ordinance that would ban retailers within town limits from distributing them. Period.
Council will hold another worksession on the matter at its next meeting on Aug. 3, which the community, and local retailers in particular, are encouraged to attend.
The unanimously conveyed council sentiment came as the seven reviewed a draft ordinance that would impose a 25-cent “Advanced Recovery Fee” on each paper and single-use plastic bag handed out to consumers at local grocery stores.
That fee, of which the town would likely have retained a portion to offset administrative costs associated with its collection and of which grocers could have retained another portion to cover their collection costs, would have gone toward funding a town resource recovery program.
During another worksession on the matter late last month, however, Village Market Manager Bob Harnish made a compelling argument against the fee, saying it discriminated against grocers, and that its collection placed an undue burden on them.
As a result, council agreed to schedule this week’s worksession to revisit the matter.
“I have come to the conclusion that [a fee] is probably not the best approach to take,” said Councilmember Thom Carnevale. “I would suggest that we look at banning plastic bags.”
“Just ban them,” agreed Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Saunders.
Carnevale said that it was Harnish’s statement during the earlier meeting that he would prefer an outright ban on plastic bags to the proposed fee and resulting paperwork that pushed him in that direction. He also recommended that a new ordinance banning the bags apply to all businesses in the community, not just grocery stores.
“That’s a much better idea,” said Clark’s Market general manager Mark DeMist, who testified during the worksession that the fee and ensuing accounting was “more bureaucracy than we are prepared to deal with.”
“I’m pleased with it,” said environmental activist and fee architect David Allen of the new direction.
Three years ago Allen asked the Telluride council to consider passing a local ban on the lightweight plastic bags now virtually ubiquitous at grocery store counters. At that time council encouraged Allen to pursue an educational, voluntary plastic bag reduction program, largely in response to an outcry from local merchants.
That idea, formulated in collaboration with Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency, initially took shape as a friendly competition between the towns of Telluride, Mountain Village and Aspen held during the summer of 2008. The goal was to see which community could cut its per capita consumption of the flimsy plastic bags designed to be used for mere minutes before being discarded by encouraging people to shop with reusable bags instead.
Telluride won that race, which according to Allen’s calculations diverted an estimated 140,000 single-use plastic bags from the waste stream. It also inspired a much larger competition between 31 mountain towns in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho the following summer that removed 5.4 million plastic bags from the waste stream, according to Allen.
“We definitely need the time to look into some of the questions that remain,” he said. “But I’m excited that it took that turn.”
The remaining questions alluded to by Allen include what to do about paper bags, which are in some ways even more detrimental to the environment that their fossil fuel based counterparts.
“I see it as a real issue if it says just ban plastic and don’t to anything with paper,” he said, explaining that a state bill that proposed banning plastic bags throughout Colorado failed last year because, “it would just drive people to take paper.”
“Both plastic and paper have to be addressed,” he said.
DeMist corroborated that sentiment when he told council that tourists have approached him saying, “Well if they ban that, I’m just going to get paper.”
“The whole point is that the consumer needs to understand the true cost of taking a bag,” said Councilmember Brian Werner, who asked if council has the ability to require retailers to charge a fee on paper bags.
Councilmember David Oyster took issue with that idea, saying that retailers should decide for themselves whether or not to charge for bags.
“We shouldn’t even be involving ourselves on that level with the retail business,” he said.
Ultimately, more research needs to be done to learn whether retailers can be required to charge for bags, to determine what cost-effective alternatives to paper bags might exist, and to resolve a litany of other as-of-yet unanswered questions.
“We’re getting closer to having something we can actually put in writing,” Mayor Stu Fraser explained.
“We need an ordinance that makes sense, that is easy to work with, that has the support of a majority of the community and retailers, and that will work well with tourists and locals,” he said.