COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — A new law awaiting the governor's signature will require retailers in Colorado to stop using plastic bags beginning in late 2022. Additionally, restaurants will be restricted from using polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers.
House Bill 1162 passed a final vote in the House on Tuesday by a vote of 44-21 with a handful of Republicans joining the Democratic majority. The sponsors believe the best way to limit the environmental damage from single-use plastic products is to restrict their use entirely.
"We were all taught growing up: reduce, reuse, recycle," said Rep. Alex Valdez of Denver. "Well, this is kind of the reduce component, because these are not traditionally reusable items."
Plastics are not biodegradable. Randy Moorman, the Director of Legislative and Community Campaigns for Ecocycle in Boulder explained that an increasing amount of microplastics are being measured in oceans, soils, and rainfall.
"It's going to be in our environment in some form and what we're finding is that it is getting into these smaller and smaller pieces that are now getting into our air, our water, our soil, and our food," Moorman said.
He points to a 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund which reports that humans around the globe are consuming roughly five grams of plastic a week, roughly the equivalent of a credit card.
"This bill is about turning off the tap and saying we're not going to take this material anymore that's harmful to our environment and harmful to our health," Moorman said.
The restaurant and retail industries in Colorado appear ready to accept the new law. Nick Hoover of the Colorado Restaurant Association said many of his members support the switch away from polystyrene packaging.
One of their biggest concerns was related to health and safety precautions when it comes to food preparation. The association successfully lobbied for an exemption to the plastic bag ban on carry-out orders which restaurants have had to depend upon during the pandemic.
"Single-use bags are really the only way that we can ensure that that food is safe when we put that food into a bag and take it home, nothing else is going to contaminate it," Hoover said.
Certain single-use plastics from the medical field are also exempt from the new law.
Steve Kanatzar, owner of the Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs currently uses polystyrene containers for carry-out orders, and when dine-in customers need to take home some leftovers. He the packaging helps maintain food temperatures and is waterproof. Eliminating Styrofoam will cost his business.
"To replace the Styrofoam with cardboard is two to three times what the regular Styrofoam is," Kanatzar said.
Tim Shestek, Senior Director of State Affairs for the American Chemistry Council, believes the state could benefit from advanced recycling techniques rather than banning products altogether. Only about 16 percent of our waste is currently recycled.
Shestek suspects that switching away from polystyrene will only increase the waste from other food containers.
"There's really no corresponding policy to deal with likely replacement products," Shestek said.
State Rep. Lisa Cutter, another sponsor of the bill, disagrees.
"We have to first reduce. We are never going to recycle our way out of this problem," she said.
The legislation takes effect on September 1, 2022. However, retailers will have until March of 2023 to use up any plastic bags in their inventory. Customers who choose to use either recycled paper bags (or plastic bags before April of 2023) will have to pay a fee of $0.10 per bag.
Sixty percent of the money collected on the bag fees will support local recycling programs. The remaining 40 percent will be paid to the retailer.
It will be easy for the Bread and Butter Neighborhood Market to adjust. The locally-owned grocer deliberately avoided using plastic bags since they opened last September.
"We've made a decision as a company to limit plastic use as much as possible," explained co-owner Stacey Poor. "So, our customers either use a reusable back or they're checked out with a paper bag."
Chris Howes of the Colorado Retail Council, which represents all of the large chain stores in our state, said his members are not specifically opposed to the plastic bag ban. However, they are concerned about a growing number of local governments that have enacted their own plastics regulation.
Colorado currently prohibits local governments from establishing their own plastic policies. However, House Bill 1162 includes an amendment added in the Senate that will allow local governments to create their own plastic policy beginning in 2024.
"If you're running a distribution center, you'd rather have uniformity throughout the entire state," Howes said.
Hoover anticipates problems caused by the amendment similar to the disparities in the enforcement of COVID capacity restrictions early in the pandemic.
"Imagine a restaurant two blocks away that has the ability to be open full capacity while others don't," he said. "Now, take that and apply it to everything in the restaurant that's plastic."