Keeping it simple…
By Mark Reaman
Crested Butte’s plastic bag ban will be a bit more mellow and less onerous than the measure some locals hoped would be passed Tuesday, July 5.
Sustainable Crested Butte members had worked with town attorney John Belkin to pen a proposed ordinance that would have immediately banned most but not all single-use plastic bags in town and would have imposed a 30-cent fee for recycled paper bags.
The council felt that was too burdensome and asked Belkin and town manager Bill Crank to come back at the July 18 meeting with an ordinance that phases in a plastic bag ban over 18 to 24 months and does not include a charge for paper bags except on the largest retailers in town, determined by square footage of the premises. That would most likely be just Clark’s Market.
In another major shift under the revised ordinance, the town would not be responsible for collecting any money or administering the ban program.
The council has apparently heard from several business owners who had issues with the ban as presented. Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce director Eliza Cress told the council that there seemed to be three major concerns from local businesses over the proposal.
“Most of the businesses are for a bag ban of sorts,” Cress said. “But they would like a period to adjust and go through the current bag inventory. Many have purchased bags for the next year or even longer. The 30-cent fee for a customer to purchase a bag also felt high to businesses. They are already competing with things like Amazon Prime that deliver products to their doorstep. Adding another fee doesn’t help. And the reporting aspect to the town is an issue. It’s another step that takes time. In Telluride, it’s just the groceries that have to collect and report the fees.”
Bobby Maxwell of Elk in an Apron, a kitchen store on Elk Avenue, agreed with those sentiments. “If the goal is to encourage people to be environmentally minded and recycle, you’re spot on,” he said. “But the implementation is wrong. We run our business in an environmentally friendly way. We always ask first if customers want a bag. The administration puts another burden on us. We don’t think it really will lessen our carbon footprint.”
“If that’s the goal, then include everything like Styrofoam boxes that restaurants use for leftovers,” Maxwell continued. “Include pizza boxes and newspapers. Everyone should pitch in and it should be a shared responsibility. The 30-cent fee is too high. Sales tax is already huge. Adding another tax really hurts. Instead of a penalty, consider a sales tax break if a customer doesn’t use a bag. Give them a 10-cent break. That’s not great for the town but it would put your money where your mouth is.”
“It is being done in other places and can be done here,” countered resident John Meyer. “I’ve chased plastic bags in the wind in town. The issue isn’t carbon footprint. It’s about the environment.”
Gabi Prochaska reminded the council that Sustainable Crested Butte was organizing a borrow-a-bag program modeled on an Australian program called Boomerang Bags. The concept is to produce re-useable bags that are readily available in every store and outlet. When someone doesn’t have a bag, they can use and return the borrow-a-bag. “The idea is for thousands of these bags to be everywhere and get a good circulation going.”
“They would be sewn by the group and funded through grants and private donations,” added bag ban organizer Benjamin Swift. “It’s a solution for customers who don’t want to pay for a bag. We understand the fee in Telluride is 10 cents but we wanted the higher 30-cent fee to deter use of single-use bags. Retailers put out a significant amount of single-use bags in town.”
Swift said that while the proposed ordinance didn’t have a phase-in period, his group was ready to put one in, given feedback from businesses. “But we would want a fee on both plastic and paper bags during that time so people get used to it while allowing businesses to get rid of their inventory.”
Councilman Paul Merck wondered whether the group could supply enough borrow-a-bags to satisfy the demand. “I love the idea but am not ready to pass this,” he said. “I think we have a lot of homework to do.”
Councilman Roland Mason asked about health issues if the re-useable borrowed bags were not washed. “I have a huge question on the reality of this plan with the borrow-a-bags,” he said.
Telluride’s town manager Greg Clifton was at the Crested Butte meeting and gave a recap of how Telluride’s ordinance came into being. ”Telluride was the first Colorado municipality to embark on this so we didn’t have a lot to work with,” he said. “It’s not the perfect model but it works for us.”
Clifton described a simple ordinance that essentially bans single-use plastic bags across town. The 10-cent fee on alternative bags at the town’s largest retailers, the grocery stores, is split between the businesses and the town. The town then uses its share of the money for education, for administration and to purchase re-useable bags that are provided to lodges for guests.
“The program is built to change behavior,” Clifton said. “Looking back, the locals got it right away. Using re-usable bags is the norm. We also wrestled with the health issues. But by and large, it has worked for us. It was heated at the beginning but it died down after about a year.”
Clifton advocated for a phase-in period and exemptions that included things like packaging meat and items such as artwork and books that should be protected from weather.
Belkin said part of the problem with the issues coming up at the meeting was that no town staff person was really involved in directing and crafting the ordinance. “That’s unique,” Belkin said. “While Erika Vohman and Paul have been part of the group it is important to get your staff to work with the group.”
“I certainly like the simpler Telluride ordinance than what’s before us tonight,” said councilman Jim Schmidt. “I hate the idea of the town collecting money and administering some of this. It’s not worth it. We have a lean staff and I don’t want them burdened with this.” Town finance director Lois Rozman confirmed that the town would collect a miniscule amount of money compared to the work involved.
Councilwoman Laura Mitchell said the town had spent time and money getting the ordinance to this point and she was willing to vote to pass it but she did like the idea of including a phase-in period.
Mason said he was “okay with the general idea” but wanted a lower bag fee and agreed with Schmidt that the town should not be directly involved. “There are other avenues to use for education and the council does have two grant cycles [during which] we would likely be open to supporting this.”
“The idea is a good one,” said councilman Chris Ladoulis. “The struggle is if it is good policy and there is a difference. I disagree with the notion of a penalty. I like the idea of raising awareness without burdening retailers.”
Mayor Glenn Michel said the reason the council was considering the issue was “to affect and change behavior and raise awareness for our constituents and guests. I’m in favor of sticking to the Telluride model. While Erika isn’t here tonight and she would probably passionately argue to pass this, it seems like the council is generally in favor of a plastic bag ban but not the fee part. We’re not going to save the planet with this ordinance so the staff can craft an ordinance based on our comments tonight. It seems clear the majority of the council wants a scaled-back ordinance.”
“It’s a work in progress and this is the most direction the council has given us,” said Belkin.
The council will consider a simpler ordinance at the July 18 council meeting that gets the town out of the bag ban business, only charges a fee for bags used in the town’s biggest establishments, and bans plastic bags across town after about a two-year phase-in period.