“I am adamantly in support of this,” said Councilmember Thom Carnevale, voicing the common sentiment. “I think this is a terrific idea and I think we need to get started as soon as possible.”
The brainchild of local environmental activist David Allen, the ordinance will be inspired by one that went into effect this past January making Washington, D.C. the country’s first major city to impose a surcharge on disposable paper and plastic bags used at grocery and retail stores.
While the capital’s customers now pay a five-cent fee for every paper or plastic bag that goes to help clean up the city’s Anacostia River, in Telluride a more hefty 25-cents per bag fee has been floated, with the beneficiary of the proceeds yet undetermined.
Unlike the Washington, D.C. law, which provides exemptions for bags used for newspapers, produce, hardware, frozen foods, plants, bakery items, and prescription drugs and applies to all District businesses, in Telluride the ordinance would apply only to grocery stores, remaining voluntary for other retailers.
Three years ago Allen asked council to pass a local ban on the lightweight plastic bags now virtually ubiquitous at grocery store counters (save for where they have already been banned or voluntarily phased out) in an effort he described as naïve.
Largely in response to an outcry from local merchants, council at that time encouraged Allen to pursue an educational, volunteer plastic bag reduction program.
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 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.
Telluride handily won that race, which inspired a much larger competition between 31 mountain towns in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho the following summer.
“I thought that was a very successful volunteer program,” said Allen.
Nonetheless, participation was optional and enthusiasm to cut consumption of the bags waned as the contest closed, he said.
In the interim the issue has gained momentum in the United States, with plastic – particularly in the form of the ultra-thin, throw-away bags – undergoing increasing scrutiny and in some cases legislation.
In fact, council’s direction came just one day after the locally-produced documentary Bag It exploring the effects of plastic on the health of the environment and its inhabitants shared the Audience Award (with the introspective documentary I Am) at this year’s Mountainfilm Festival.
“If you saw Bag It over the weekend or even looked at a fraction of the statistics, you can’t help but be compelled to believe that we have to do something about this,” said Allen.
Still, while Ireland implemented a 15-cent tax on plastic bags in 2002 that has cut use by 90 percent, and China banned the thinnest of bags just before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, attempts to limit their distribution in this country have met with mixed results.
In San Francisco, which originally planned to impose a fee on plastic bags, lobbyists succeeded in securing a state law that prohibits cities from assessing bag fees. As a result, in 2007 it became the first U.S. city to ban them outright at large grocery stores and chain pharmacies.
Yet in Seattle last year the voters overturned a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags approved by the city council after the plastic industry invested more than $1 million to fight the law.
Closer to home a state Senate bill that would have banned large Colorado retailers from using plastic bags by 2012 saw defeat last year. Had it passed it would have made Colorado the first state in the nation to impose such a ban, however California now appears as though it may be poised to take that title, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Because of Telluride’s many tourists who might not arrive at local grocery stores toting reusable bags, and outright ban on paper and plastic bags here seems impractical.
“Going down this fee route makes the most sense for our community,” said Allen, who cautioned that the town should be aware that industry groups might try to influence the local debate as happened in Seattle.
“I think that’s something we need to consider – the possibility of them coming in and trying to thwart it,” he said.
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger suggested that in order for the fee to be effective Allen should also pursue a parallel ordinance in the Town of Mountain Village, which he is already doing.
“Mayor Bob Delves is totally on board; he just basically needs to know how things go today,” said Allen, who indicated general support from Mountain Village retailers as well.
“The nuts and bolts of it seem to be that everyone’s in favor of disincentivizing them,” he said.
With a streamlined approval process, the Telluride ordinance could go into effect as early as July or August.