Black flies and bag bans

Like the flies that are in the backcountry right now, the Crested Butte bag ban ordinance and discussion is getting a bit annoying. It stalled Monday because four of the seven council reps wanted to impose a broader requirement than previously discussed for a fee on paper bags once plastic is banned. But the fee of 20 cents is more symbolic than practical and seems to me will just be a burden on local businesspeople who don’t need another bureaucratic thing to do in their spare time. A 20-cent fee won’t deter people from using bags if they forget and the money won’t be used for education, better bags or awareness. So why is it there?

Bag ban organizer Benjamin Swift told me Tuesday, “The sole purpose of the fee is to change behavior. Even if the fee itself is relatively nominal, its presence will make it so that retailers ask customers if they need a bag rather than automatically putting their purchase in a bag. Fees like these have been shown to change consumer behavior, and though it would maximize the impact of the fee if the town was willing to collect a portion of the proceeds and use it for education or to purchase reusable bags, we feel that a fee will prompt people to think and bring their own bags.”

Benjamin is really smart, he’s done his homework and he’s effectively got the town to the cusp of a plastic bag ban. I have no doubt something will get passed but I just don’t buy the reasoning for the fee if the money doesn’t go to reusable bags or information.

What’s more annoying in my view is the way that some individual councilmembers have addressed the issue. Two Crested Butte councilmembers have insisted for weeks that they want to stop talking about a single-use plastic bag ban and just get something on the books. Nonetheless, Jim Schmidt and Laura Mitchell voted against a plastic bag ban Monday night. They, along with councilmembers Paul Merck and Erika Vohman, voted no so they could impose a broader burden on all local retailers by forcing them by law to charge customers  20 cents per bag. The classic irony in that stance is that the fee collection is a burden they specifically made clear they didn’t want the town staff to deal with in any way. Huh?

Schmidt in particular has said he would not vote for any ordinance that required the town to collect and track fees on paper bags. But he is insisting the town impose that mandate on all the local businesses? That reasoning seems buried in a bit of a blind spot. If it is too much hassle for the town accounting department, why is it better and easier and more productive for local businesspeople? Fact is, the fee element will be a burden on whoever is forced to collect it.

Local businesspeople I spoke with said they have bigger fish to fry when running a business—and trying to track bags, run more reports for the local government that isn’t interested in doing the same and “changing people’s behavior” are not at the top of the list.

That left councilmen Chris Ladoulis and Roland Mason and mayor Glenn Michel casting votes for an ordinance that would have banned plastic bags in Crested Butte by 2018, imposed a 10-cent fee on paper bags at the town’s largest retailer (Clark’s Market) and kept the town out of the fee collection aspect. Seemed like a good, solid, simple step for a bag ban. It failed.

The key to anything new is keeping it simple. Several retailers have made it clear they support the idea of banning plastic bags in town. They support a simple, effective ordinance.

The fee isn’t going toward education or purchasing reusable bags for tourists like it does in Telluride. So why even have it in there? Honestly, my guess is the businesses following this debate, and even some of the councilmembers voting on this don’t actually believe the fee will be monitored. Is the town going to hire bag cops? Are town employees going to demand they see store receipts to make sure the 20-cent fee is being imposed? Highly doubtful.

Sort of like the black flies that are inundating all the trails right now, the fee, even if imposed, won’t keep people from buying here but it will feel like an unwanted sting at the end of the purchase. As the cash register closes, you get the word of one more fee that makes your t-shirt purchase that much more expensive. The flies and this fee won’t keep you from hiking, biking or buying but it can be really annoying. The council determined the fee element is too much of a hassle for them and the people working in Town Hall—yet they pushed it off on the businesses without a real clear goal of what it will accomplish. It seems burdensome in its pointlessness, if nothing else.

Get rid of the fee and you get a simple ordinance, supported by citizens and retailers, that rids the town of (most) plastic bags. Mission accomplished. As has been said, it won’t save the world but it is a step toward something that can make a difference in this small chunk of the world. It also blends in with part of our charm.

Watching this debate has at times been like watching someone lose it with the flies on the trail. They begin swatting at everything wildly in hopes the swarm just goes away. It doesn’t. The council should perhaps focus on the fly buzzing around its ear and set things in motion to get rid of plastic bags instead of trying to fecklessly kill most of the swarm with one swat.

—Mark Reaman

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