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by Allen Best

From Big Pivots No. 41, July 9, 2021

Colorado has a law signed Tuesday afternoon by Gov. Jared Polis in the shade of a tree outside of the Governor’s Mansion. Beginning in 2024, stores can no longer give out either single-use plastic bags or foam containers such as for coffee and other food products.

With this law, called the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, Colorado became the 10th state to take action against single-use plastic bags and the 8th against foam. It is the first interior state in both cases, according to the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group that was a key advocate for the legislation.

Danny Katz, the executive director of CoPIRG, also noted that Colorado is the first state to repeal a law that denied local governments the ability to regulate plastic pollution in their communities. This cleared the way for Denver to institute its ban on free plastic shopping bags beginning July 1.

Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Democrat from Jefferson County and a prime sponsor of the bill, called it a “great first step.” Environmental groups agreed that the work is far from done. Further legislative efforts may attempt to suppress the large amounts of plastic used in packaging and which cannot be easily recycled.

The numbers cited by CoPIRG defy the imagination. The group estimates 1.2 million foam cups get distributed each day in Colorado and 4.6 million plastic bags.

Those numbers seem unbelievable. But then I reflect on a trip I took in May to hear the meadowlarks sing amid the sand hills of northeastern Colorado. It’s a sparsely populated area, neighbors sometimes a mile apart. Even so, along the border between Phillips-Yuma counties, plastic bags snagged on the barbed-wire fences fluttered in the spring breeze.

Everywhere we go, from the borrow pits of graveled county roads on the Great Plains to our city streets to the mountain rivers, we see the evidence of our mindless devotion to the easy packaging of plastic.

This plastic is not a climate change problem, per se. But it is concurrent with our proliferating use of fossil fuels and acceleration in greenhouse gas emissions. Pew Charitable Trusts say that production soared from 2 million metric tons in 1950 to 348 million metric tons in 2017—an amount that would double by 2040 if no changes are made.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis congratulates a girl from Arvada and her mother as Rep. Lisa Cutter looks on. Photo/Allen Best

Mountain resort towns led Colorado’s push against proliferation of plastic. Telluride was first, in 2010, with a law that precluded distribution of free plastic bags at its two grocery stores (it now has a third). This followed a contest among ski towns to attempt voluntary reductions.

There was opposition, says Stu Fraser, then the mayor, but the council was united. Ginny Fraser, the former mayor’s wife, says there does seem to be less plastic in the town.

Others followed Telluride in the next several years: Aspen, Boulder, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Crested Butte, and Vail.

Basalt also banned single-use plastic bags, but the ban was overturned by voters. Aspen’s ban was contested in a legal case that went to the Colorado Supreme Court, but the ban was upheld because the fees collected for distribution of paper bags were earmarked for program costs. As such, the town said it was a fee, not a new tax. Justices agreed.

The bill allows exemptions within stores and also the types of stores. Plastic bags used for apples and oranges, for example, are exempted. So are bags used by pharmacists to deliver medication. There are other exemptions as well.

Some stores are also exempted. Those with two stores or fewer in Colorado do not have to comply with the law. That means the community-owned grocery store in Walsh, a town in southeastern Colorado, will not have to comply. Ditto for the unique grocery store and deli in southeastern Colorado called the Dolores Food Market. And presumably there’s a gas station in Julesberg or Craig that is individually owned and not part of a chain that won’t have to comply with the ban on plastic-foam coffee cups.

But City Market/King Soopers, Safeway, Walmart and dozens and dozens of other chain stores—yes, they will have to comply.

State Rep. Alex Valdez, a Democrat from Denver, said at the bill-signing at the Governor’s Mansion that HB21-1162, of which he was a prime sponsor, that plastic is not just a matter of visual pollution. “Plastic ends up in the food you eat,” he said, describing the measure as an effort to protect long-term human health.

The bill was adopted along mostly partisan lines. Even those Republican legislators who supported some clean energy legislation bills—Senators Kevin Priola of Brighton and Don Coram of Montrose, and Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose—opposed the bill.

Among those standing behind Gov. Jared Polis as he delivered his remarks was the mayor of Avon, Sarah Smith Hymes.

Avon adopted a ban on free plastic bags that went into effect in 2018. Town leaders wanted to push further to take on disposable polystyrene foam products, such as are commonly used to package fast foods. Styrofoam is one branded polystyrene product. This bill addresses that.

“It really went smoothly,” she said of Avon’s action in an interview after the bill signing. She credited Aspen with crafting a path but also Vail in helping normalize the idea of carrying reusable bags into grocery stores. “It didn’t take very long for people to begin taking bags when walking into stores.”

Her professional career, which included working in China, where she spent many years selling American processing and packaging machinery, made her aware of plastic and other pollution on a global scale.

In Avon, where she settled down to rear a family, she became cognizant of plastic bags plugging up storm drains and of plastic litter along the Eagle River and tributary creeks.

“It was on my mind for many, many years,” she said.

Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes

Avon is a town of 6,500 people, small by conventional standards—except that it’s in a resort area. It has a Home Depot, a Super Walmart, and a good-sized City Market. The proliferation of plastic, she says, impacts the community far more than the population alone would suggest.

Like Cutter, the state representative, Smith Hymes believes there is far more work to do. There’s just too much plastic packaging and no way to recycle it.

Is plastic in drinking water a problem?

Avon gets its water from the Eagle River. Is the water polluted by plastic? Are you ingesting tiny bits of plastic when drinking a glass of water?

Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, the water provider for Avon, has never tested for microplastics, nor is it part of the sampling and monitoring prescribed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, reports Diane Johnson, public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the operator of the water authority.  Plastics have not been a part of the “emerging contaminants” of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“As far as drinking water treatment, our facilities use sedimentation and filtration (in Avon) and microfiltration (in Edwards), which would seem to be sufficient at removing any microplastics coming in from the river and entering the drinking water supply,” she reports.

“Our understanding is that microplastics are more of an issue in large lakes and the oceans where they can accumulate over time,” she says.

Of greater issue are the microplastics entering the wastewater stream from homes and businesses. Microplastics can come from synthetic fibers in clothes cleansed by washing machines and small, exfoliating beads in many face and body washes.

Research reported in a 2020 paper published in a Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal found that various techniques in wastewater treatment can remove microplastics with a high level of efficacy.

As for polystyrene and single-use plastic bags, they do not appear to affect Upper Eagle Valley’s water operations. “They could get caught on our bar screen on our intakes in the Eagle River, but we don’t think this has ever occurred or been an issue for us,” said Johnson.

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