Denver City Council President Jolon Clark and some of his colleagues are looking into banning plastic bags in the city. Straws and plastic utensils could get blacklisted, too.
No one has proposed a law yet. The Denver City Council discussed the possibility at a meeting of the newly formed Policy Committee on Wednesday.
A council bill would probably move forward only if the Colorado General Assembly repealed a state law banning local governments from prohibiting the “use or sale” of specific plastic products. The Democrat-controlled legislature is open to repealing the law, according to Clark, who said he’s talked with leadership.
“I think it could open a lot of doors that I am personally excited about,” Clark said in an interview.
Seattle, Portland, Boston, Aspen and Telluride all banned the bag. California and Hawaii, too. In Aspen, grocers and other stores can’t give away single-use plastic bags, but can provide reusable ones. Paper bags cost 20 cents each, with 15 cents per bag funneled into a fund for reducing waste in the city.
Denver saw more than 7,000 tons of plastic film, bags and wrap thrown out in 2017, according to Charlotte Pitt, operations manager at Denver Solid Waste Management.
Plastic Bags Enemy Number 1
I suspect that caption should read tons of garbage and birds, not tons of birds.
They’re also “enemy number one” for Denver’s trash and recycling systems, said Clark, who recently toured the waste plants with his fellow lawmakers. Plastic bags clog recycling equipment (the city does not recycle plastic bags), contaminate composting efforts, and evade trash compactors at the landfill, often blowing away and becoming litter, Pitt said.
Curiously, Aspen and Telluride ban plastic but state law does not allow that. Denver might be a bit more cautious in expecting a lawsuit.
Use Plastic Save a Tree
I recall the promotion to use plastic to save trees. What happened?
No doubt there is a lot of plastic floating around in the ocean killing turtles and the like who confuse plastic with jellyfish. And paper eventually breaks down. But at what cost?
Plastic vs Paper
The plastics association says "Shipping assumes truck freight at $20/cwt for 1,000 miles average. 6 mile per gallon hauling 40,000 lbs in a full truck load. Emission and BTU data from The University of Texas at Austin, Michigan Technological University, and the US Environmental Protection Agency 2001. Bags are compared with new materials. Plastic bags require less energy to collect and recycle than paper bags."
Plastic bags can be made biodegradable, but then they won't be recyclable. And the cost will likely be something under the near 10-1 advantage listed.
Two of the most important considerations for the eco footprint of a bag (or any other item) are whether we reuse it and, if so, how many times. An exhaustive Environment Agency (U.K.) report from 2011 found that paper bags must be reused at least three times to negate their higher climate-warming potential (compared with that of plastic bags). A cotton bag would have to be reused 131 times to break even with a plastic bag, in terms of the climate impact of producing each bag. Of course, plastics can be reused as well — they just don’t look as trendy.
According to the previously cited U.K. study, it takes three reuses of a paper bag to neutralize its environmental impact, relative to plastic. A bag’s impact is more than just its associated carbon emissions: Manufacturing a paper bag requires about four times as much water as a plastic bag. Additionally, the fertilizers and other chemicals used in tree farming and paper manufacturing contribute to acid rain and eutrophication of waterways at higher rates.
The standard grocery store plastic bag is made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Studies agree that plastic bags are by far the least costly (i.e., carry the smallest ecological footprint) to produce.
Recycling plastic bags can be difficult. They often fly out of bins or cling to machinery. For these reasons, many cities do not accept them in the municipal recycling stream.
Reusable cotton or polypropylene
Reusable bags may be made from many different materials (hemp fiber, for instance, is especially good for people who fancy themselves as hip), but the two most common types are cotton and nonwoven polypropylene (PP), a more durable type of plastic. Even these chic reusable bags have caught flak from some environmentalists. Are they really better than plastic bags? The answer depends on how faithfully you reuse them. As mentioned in our essential answer, above, an average cotton shopping bag would need to be reused 131 times to account for its higher impact on the production side. So if you’re going to use this bag for the next five years, have at it.
I like the conclusion "In the end, your actions will make the greatest difference — not the bag itself. The most sustainable choice is one that’s sustainable for you."
Are people really going to reuse paper bags three or four times? I highly doubt it.
So what problem are we trying to solve here? If the answer is to reduce clogs in recycling machines, then one might make a case for banning bags. If not, then unless people recycle, it's reasonably clear that plastic beats paper.
Then again, how about training people to not throw plastic bags in the recycle bin? Wouldn't that help?
Sooner or later some city will try the guilt approach, mandating a question like this at the checkout counter: Sir, do you want paper to kill a tree or plastic to kill a turtle? The former is a dollar, the latter three. If neither, bring your own bag.
This might not be as simple as Colorado wants it to be.
I am a firm believer that the free market, not government bureaucrats will solve these kinds of problems.
Mike "Mish" Shedlock