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Colorado city official seeks plastics industry help after bag fee fails

By: Gayle S. Putrich

March 22, 2013

WASHINGTON — While Fort Collins, Colo., will not become the latest U.S. city to charge a fee for plastic bags after a failed March 18 vote, some city officials are looking to the plastics industry for help and suggestions

The proposal to impose a 10-cent-per-bag fee on paper and plastic bags at grocery stores failed on a 3-3 vote. One council member was absent, but "almost certainly would have voted for it," one city official said. The fee was expected to bring in an estimated $976,000 in 2014, according to city officials. That income would have been split 60-40 with retailers. The city's 60 percent share would have been used to pay part-time employees to administer the program and to fund educational recycling and environmental programs.

The council and city staff had been looking at some version of a bag ordinance for more than two years, said Susie Gordon, senior environmental planner with the city of Fort Collins, with options ranging from an outright ban to a fee of 5 or 10 cents to stepped-up recycling efforts.

"It kind of just kept getting pushed off the agenda," Gordon said. There was not the overwhelming opposition to the fee some municipalities have seen, she said, but there was not overwhelming support for it, either.

It is "entirely likely" a fee or ban proposal could resurface in Fort Collins, Gordon said, particularly given the approach the city takes toward environmental issues. The city has had a long-term environmental policy and waste-reduction plan in place since the mid-1990s, and earlier this month it passed an ordinance requiring residents and businesses to recycle corrugated cardboard rather than put it in the trash.

There is a citywide recycling effort for single-use plastic bags, she said, but it does not have much of a following, in spite of outreach efforts. Every grocery store has a 50-gallon drum for customers to drop off used plastic bags. "But they're usually overflowing. Or else no one can find them or they're not well-marked so no one knows what they're for," she said.

Gordon said instead of another run at a fee or a bag ban, she would like to see the plastics industry and the American Chemistry Council work with the city of 150,000 on a better recycling solution for single-use plastic grocery bags and other thin films, including coming up with a "bag-specific receptacle" to keep light plastics from blowing away and help locating a nearby recycler for whom the film has value.

"People want to bring their collection of grocery bags in a giant Hefty trash bag. They want to recycle their bread bags and newspaper wrappers and dry cleaning bags. But [the city] needs help finding someone to take the bags," she said.