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It may be a horse race without any apparent winners: state Democrats are trying again to ban plastic single-use bags in an omnibus bill, but a competing bill has bipartisan support and may win the race.

An omnibus bill known as House Bill 1162  would ban plastic bags and expanded polystyrene (EPS) – often used for take out food containers.  The bill would allow local governments to impose stricter requirements around plastics recycling and is moving through the Colorado State House. But it has more opposition now than three bills that attempted the same effort last year.

Senate Bill 21-180 would create a grant program on recycling and composting, with fees charged to distributors that sell foodservice packaging. It has bipartisan support and was approved by the Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee on March 22 on a 5-2 bipartisan vote and sent to the Senate Finance Committee.

Special containers, decorated by Salida school students are located throughout downtown. At 1st and F Streets, this one was done by Salida Middle School. Photo by Merrell Bergin

Last year, Colorado house bills 20-1162 and 20-1163 attempted to ban plastic bags and other single-use plastics as well as polystyrene containers. But when the pandemic shortened the 2020 session, the bills died. A third bill, SB 20-010, would have lifted a law that bars local governments from bans or restrictions on plastics. But it got buried in the reality that companies are forced by the state’s cities and counties to operate under a plethora of different rules.

This new 2021 bill would require retail food businesses and general stores to stop using single-use plastic carryout bags as of Sept. 1, 2022, exempting existing inventory. But that inventory would have to be used up by March 1, 2023.

After that, businesses could sell those single-use bags for 10 cents each, with people on food assistance programs exempted from the fee. The bill requires that 60 percent of those fees are required to be remitted to the local government and the business would keep the rest.

HB 1162 would require banning polystyrene food containers as of Sept. 1, 2022. Retail food businesses located within schools would be allowed to continue their use for another year; high schools would have until Sept. 1, 2024, to use up their supplies.

The House Energy and Environment Committee reviewed the bill on March 11, where it was amended to exempt bags used for drugs or medical devices.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Lisa Cutter (D-Littleton) and Rep. Alex Valdez (D-Denver). They say that Democrats supported all three bills last year and that restaurants are moving away from these materials because people don’t want them.

Roll off container at Salida Recycling Center. Photo by Merrell Bergin

But the impact of COVID-19 on plastic and takeout containers in the past year, where takeout orders have been encouraged as a means for retail survival was brought up during the hearing. “We’ve been forced into takeout situations, or to use more plastic bags from grocery stores in the past year,” said Valdez.

“We are sensitive to that situation” for restaurants but it’s leading to a drastic increase in pollution, added Valdez. As to the cost of switching from single-use plastics to other packaging, Valdez acknowledged that according to restaurant sources, there will be a higher cost, around five cents per order. “Now is the best time since we’ve changed our habits so much in the past year,” he said.

Witnesses during the March 11 hearing said that mountain communities have difficulty recycling. Jonathan Greenberg of Telluride said during that hearing that Telluride has to import most products and ship containers back out, with little opportunity to recycle anything, especially difficult-to-recycle products. Most of it ends up in the landfill, he said. Aspen representatives said they’re 11 years away from their landfill being full.

The plastics industry weighed in, with the American Chemistry Council’s Director of Plastic Foodservice Packaging Omar Terrie, explaining that polystyrene can be recycled. “It’s not accurate” to say it’s not recycled or recyclable. We supported the recycling market development bill” from 2020, said Terrie, who added that the 2021 version is in competition with HB 1162. Terrie said there are alternatives to single-use polystyrene (but he did not elaborate).

According to Terrie, polystyrene is 95 percent air, so in his words, “The bill is banning air.”

But there is a problem: the state does not yet have the infrastructure to recycle single-use polystyrene.

HB 1162 is now is in the hands of the House Appropriations Committee, but it has no Republican sponsorship,

SB 21-180 is sponsored by Sens. Kevin Priola  (R-Henderson) and Rachel Zenzinger (D-Arvada). It is backed by the American Chemistry Council, but has little support outside the state Capitol. But in the state’s fiscal analysis, the program could generate $15 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2022-23. Sponsors say the money could go to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to create new or expand existing recycling, recovery, and composting operations. It could also support the creation of markets for recycled materials and possibly encourage recycling, composting, and education efforts.

Colorado’s Recycling Rate is low

Considering Colorado’s embarrassingly low recycling rate, just about anything would be an improvement. While the national recycling rate is around 35 percent, according to the state’s fiscal review, Colorado’s recycling rate has actually dropped: from 17.2 percent to 15.9 percent this past year.

Chaffee County’s recycling rate is even lower. In a recent presentation regarding loss of the county’s primary recycling resource, Greater Arkansas River Nature Association (GARNA) reported a county diversion rate of trash to recyclables of only 7. 3 percent of the total waste generated.

The Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) isn’t on board with SB 21-180. “Our members do not believe it is the sole responsibility of the restaurant industry to fix Colorado’s bad recycling rates,” said CRA representative Nick Hoover.

Neither, apparently is Environment Colorado.  The bill “perpetuates the lie” that recycling will fix the plastic pollution crisis, she said, adding that the bill will not change the markets for single-use products, and the fee is too low, said representative Hannah Collazzo.

For a more in-depth assessment of the activity on recycling bills at the Colorado General Assembly, go to this in-depth article by  Marianne Goodland.