Colorado is joining the scrum of states trying to ban plastic bags and expanded polystyrene containers, but in a sign of how the politics are shifting, the plastics industry has a new comeback: Tax us instead.
As an alternative to a ban, the American Chemistry Council is supporting legislation in the state that would put a three-tenths of a penny fee on all foodservice ware, not just plastic, to fund recycling and composting programs.
It's not a completely new idea for the plastics industry. ACC first proposed a similar fee in California in 2019.
But as the plastics ban picks up steam in the Colorado Legislature, the industry is formally endorsing packaging fee legislation, which was introduced March 10 by a different group of lawmakers. It would create a state board that could raise fees up to 1 cent if recycling rate targets are not met.
At the March 11 hearing to debate the ban bill, supporters and opponents testified and lawmakers parleyed for nearly four hours before legislators on one statehouse committee voted 8-5 to move the ban forward to another committee.
"With this bill, we can take … two pieces of very important and very impactful plastic out of circulation, two unrecyclable types of plastic out of circulation, over time," said Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, one of the sponsors of the ban bill. "We can't recycle our way out of this crisis."
But plastics industry representatives argued that the state can — and should — do much more to support recycling.
Omar Terrie, director of ACC's plastic foodservice packaging, told the hearing that ACC supports the fee legislation, SB-180, as a way to raise money to build recycling and composting systems.
"We support a lot of different ideas that would bring recycling infrastructure to Colorado by putting a fee on foodservice ware across the board; it would be material neutral," Terrie said.
"That would allow us to develop the recycling and the composting infrastructure that's needed in the state in order to get not only polystyrene foam, but alternatives to polystyrene foam, throughout the entire foodservice market, to be recyclable and to get that recycling rate up," he said, cautioning lawmakers to weigh the environmental impact of other materials.
All sides seem to agree that recycling must be improved.
Ban supporters pointed to a recent report from the Colorado Public Interest Research Group that said the state's recycling rate for all materials was 15.9 percent in 2019, down from 17.2 percent a year earlier. The group said that was well below the national recycling rate of 35 percent.
As well, figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show the recycling rate for polystyrene containers and packaging across the U.S. was only 3.6 percent in 2018, the most recent year statistics are available.
Ban supporters say they want to address pollution and human health costs from plastics production and what they say are market failures to build recycling systems for those products.
Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, said lawmakers are "not taking on all plastics" but are focused on retail bags and EPS containers in restaurants because they're widely used.
"We've talked about how cheap plastic is, and that is why it is so widely used," Sirota said. "It is cheap because we socialize the costs of plastic. These costs are actually offloaded to communities."