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Plastic Bags in Boulder – Update from the Boulder City Council

Earlier this month, we covered the City of Boulder’s upcoming agenda item regarding possible regulation of plastic and paper bags.  The Boulder City Council met on May 15th to discuss the range of options for regulating the use of plastic and paper bags.


Plastic bag litter

End of the line for plastic bags?

During the summer of 2011 a number of community members and groups asked City Council to reduce disposable bag use in Boulder through an ordinance and began collecting petition signatures to spur the council to action.  As a result, the council tasked the city staff with exploring options for achieving this goal and invited large stakeholders to take part in the exploratory phase.


Based on the research, the staff presented five possible options at the council meeting:

  1. Fee or tax on plastic and paper bags;
  2. Ban on plastic bags with a fee on paper bags;
  3. Ban on plastic and paper bags;
  4. Educational campaign only; and
  5. No action.

If the chosen approach was an ordinance, its scope would need to address the type of businesses it would apply to, which could include either one or a combination of the following:

  • All retail businesses;
  • Retail businesses over a determined size threshold;
  • Businesses defined as “Food Stores” in the sales tax system;
  • “Food Stores” over a determined size threshold; and/or
  • Business defined as “Eating Places” in the sales tax database.

The city staff took a comprehensive approach to decide on the best option, including researching the results of other municipality’s ordinances on bags; the impact on local businesses big and small, consumer impacts and environmental impacts.

Based on their research and findings the staff recommended the following:

Option 1 – A fee on both disposable plastic and paper checkout bags

A bag tax would have to await voter approval, while a fee can be implemented in the near-term through an ordinance. This option:

  • acknowledges the life cycle environmental impacts of both types of bags, supporting a shift away from disposable bag use in general and not from one type of bag to another;
  • creates an effective financial incentive to change behavior;
  • is acceptable to all of the large grocers since it minimizes their implementation and administrative costs;
  • retains consumer choice and convenience; and
  • helps offset the city costs for implementation, administration, education and strategies to minimize impacts to low income consumers and tourists.

Scope of ordinance: Apply to food stores

This option:

  • targets a majority of bag use in Boulder while maximizing clarity of the ordinance;
  • avoids confusion for businesses around who must comply; and
  • minimizes city resources required for administration, enforcement and monitoring of exemptions and threshold levels.

As mentioned in the meeting minutes (large PDF) the staff felt that including additinoal business types would have a diminishing impact on reducing bag use and would demand more city resources to implement.  The staff state that this ordinance could be expanded in the future if need be.

The meeting minutes (large PDF) includes lots of additional background and data that the city staff used in determining what course of action to recommend.

So readers, what do you think?  Did the city staff make the right decision? If you were on the staff, what would you think based on the data?  Do you feel that a fee on paper and plastic bags will give you an incentive to buy reusable grocery bags?

Image credit: InfinityGivingCircle - Flickr