Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pacific Trash Vortex and the Single-Use Plastic Bag Debate

Location: Nederland, CO 80466, USA
Cutting a single-use plastic bag into strips
The Nederland Community Library hosted a screening of the 2010 documentary, Bag It! where they ran the film every hour-and-a-half for a full day. The film is available on iTunes and on YouTube here. My daughter and I watched it at the library.

The film has won many awards, and follows Telluride local, Jeb Berrier as he makes a pledge to stop using plastic bags. It was produced by Reel Thing founded by Suzan Beraza, also from Telluride.

Bag It! reveals many environmental problems with single-use plastic bags. My daughter found the most disturbing problem to be the Great Pacific Trash Vortex where plastic fragments are found to outnumber plankton 40-to-1, and contribute to around 100,000 marine animal deaths, including birds, every year. Single use plastic bags seem to follow the same path as water; from streams, to rivers, ultimately to the ocean, and the trash vortex. As an animal lover, she said that something had to be done to keep them out of the ocean, but what else could plastic bags be used for?

My daughter decided to cut the plastic bags into strips, tie them into 'knitting yarn' and knit something useful out of them. She wanted to make a purse.

Flying Plastic Trash in Ned

We recently celebrated decommissioning the sewage lagoons down by the Barker Reservoir. Removing the fence allows access to this beautiful new park area in front of the water. The Town's bowl-shaped topography provided a wind tunnel effect, which blew through the fence, filtering out the trash – especially plastic bags.

Tying plastic bag strips together
In stark contrast to the 'plastic bag scene' from the film, American Beauty, I'm sure every Nedhead can remember walking on Guercio Ball Field seeing the fence slammed with plastic trash from high speed wind. Now the fence is gone, and the wind tunnel blows the trash into the Barker Reservoir. A new collection of plastic trash has now moved west, to the Barker Dam spillover, and a local resident even posted a photo on social media.
[Related StoryThe Nederland Waste Water Treatment Facility]
Looking upstream, what can we do to address the plastic trash closer to the source? Locals may have noticed that Town Staff installed a several bear-proof, dual recycling/trash containers around town. (Of course, convincing drainbows, tourists, and doner-cyclists from the big slab, to use the containers, is another story entirely.)

Can Nederland Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags?

Many Nederland residents would like our town to ban single-use plastic bags. Figuring out exactly how the program would work, would take a lot of staff time and resources in a small municipality with many other apparently 'bigger' problems to work on. One option is to have a volunteer task force meet with business owners, and see if a program could be implemented here. Another option is to model a program after another city or town that has successfully done it.

Winding plastic bag 'yarn' into a ball
Right in our own back yard, the City of Boulder recently went through the process of debating the topic, and on July 1, 2013 the City of Boulder's 10-cent disposable bag fee went into effect. Here is a link to Boulder's Disposable Bag Fee page, and another FAQ page. Here is another link to Plastic Bag Laws in the U.S.. Denver Councilwoman, Debbie Ortega also proposed a 5-cent plastic bag fee, which has been postponed, and now delayed for three more months.

I had heard about Boulder's disposable bag fee, but didn't pay attention, and mostly shop in Ned. My daughter and I took RTD down to Boulder to do a "high fashion photo shoot" for her new purse design. So, when we stopped in King Super's to pick something up, the automated cashier charged 10-cents for the bag, and I was startled, and curious. I had to go around to some other stores and see how they were implementing the fee – but many stores weren't charging the fee.

I went back and actually read the FAQ page above. I wasn't sure why Boulder decided that only food stores have the 10-cent fee. I still had questions, so while my daughter continued knitting plastic, I called some Boulder City Council members to learn more about the logic behind their program.

My calls led me to Jamie Harkins, Business Sustainability Specialist, at the City of Boulder, otherwise known as the 'bag lady' because she spent the last year researching and implementing Boulder's Disposable Bag Fee Ordinance 7870. There are several things I learned from Boulder's process:

1. We Would Need to Impose a Fee. – Boulder decided on a fee for two reasons. The first is because state statute appears to prevent the adoption of bans on plastic materials by municipalities. The applicable law reads:
C.R.S. § 25-17-104 Local Government Preemption: No unit of local government shall require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging, or labeling for any consumer products.
Knitting the plastic bag yarn into a purse
Therefore, a ban is not an option, and we'd have to go with a fee. Boulder's fee is collected on the same schedule as they collect sales tax, by the same staff. Boulder is a Home Rule city and collects its own sales tax. Nederland is a statutory town, and the state collects our sales tax, so we would need to figure out how to collect a bag fee.

2. Paper vs. Plastic. – The second reason for a fee, was the risk of banning plastic bags and consumers just switching to paper bags, then having to ban paper bags, etc. When talking to the stores, they were against the outright ban. So, when designing the system with a fee, Boulder's 10-cent fee includes 4-cents which goes back to the store to alleviate the burden for implementing the program.

3. Why Only Food Stores? – And why go through details of defining food stores? In Boulder, 60%-70% of the plastic bags come from food stores. The Boulder program was somewhat modeled after programs in Aspen, CO and Washington DC, which focused on food stores. The program could be modeled around square footage, or another indicator to capture a large portion of plastic bag use, without going through the expense of collecting fees from every store in a city.

In my opinion, Nederland could make our program apply to every store, so that consumers are not confused about which stores charge a fee an which do not. Washington DC's main recommendation was to make the program as simple as possible. Nederland is a small enough municipality, that we could include all businesses in the program without complex definitions of what a food store is.

The completed plastic bag purse
4. Is 10-Cents the Best Fee? – Denver's proposal is 5-cents. Boulder City Council changed the fee from 20-cents to 10-cents based on recommendations from hired consultants. They analysed the cost of implementing the program. The goal of course is for people to change their behavior and bring their own reusable bag. Apparently, consumer behavior changes occur at about the same rate whether they charged 10-cents or 20-cents. Early reports are indicating that Boulder's 10-cent fee is performing better than expected. In Washington DC, they had an 80% reduction in plastic bag usage. Nederland would probably do well with a 5-cent or 10-cent fee.

5. Providing an Alternative. – BEECO, a non-profit organization based in Boulder, implemented the 'Brought It' reusable bags and mugs program. It is an incentive program which businesses sign-up and offer rewards for consumers that choose to bring their own reusable bags or reusable mugs at coffee shops. The customer also needs to sign-up for the program to receive rewards. 

6. Alternative for Low-Income families. – The Boulder ordinance provides an exception for low income families. The City of Boulder also pre-ordered and distributed forty thousand reusable bags (made of 100% recycled materials) before the fee went into place on July 1st. They even distributed ten thousand bags at the food bank and agencies in contact with low income families.

Next Steps for Nederland:

Fashion Statement on Pearl Street Mall in Boulder
Implementing a single-use plastic bag fee in Nederland would require a fair amount of staff time from Town Hall and our staff is already tasked with implementing our existing goals. (addressing things like decades of neglect to our infrastructure.)

If there are three individuals in our community that are willing to volunteer to make this program happen, then I'm willing to put it on our agenda and make it part of the Ned Board of Trustees discussions for next year's goals. These three volunteers would talk to all the business owners in town and figure out how to implement the fee. They would research plastic bag alternatives and explore possible relationships with organizations like BEECO. They would assist in writing up the draft ordinance.

A plastic bag fee program might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it just might be part of the paradigm shift our community needs. This program could be used as an economic development tool to enhance Nederland's unique culture and unwavering commitment to the environment.
[Related StoryRules for Local Distinctiveness]
As far as my daughter's effort goes, her recycled handbags are on display at the Wild Bear Mountain Ecology Center's fair trade and ecological Gift Shop, she will be taking orders for knitted plastic bag items. She says, "Just call the Mayor and place your order." I say, the price tag drops significantly for volunteers.

Latest Update:

On May 5, 2015, the Nederland Board of Trustees approved Ordinance 737 mandating a $0.10 fee on all paper and plastic bags distributed to consumers at Nederland retail stores.

This is item 4Z-09 in the #NedZero Action Plan, under Z. Zero Waste.

[Here is a Video Valediction] This is Brazilian bossa nova performer, Fernanda Porto in her video for Sambassim. She has wide spectrum of talent, playing sax, piano, and guitar. One of my daughter's favorite songs to knit to. [What is a Video Valediction?]
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