Earlier this month, the Colorado House took the first step toward banning plastic carryout bags and expanded polystyrene foam food service containers statewide with HB1162. If the Senate follows suit, this flawed bill will ratchet up additional pressure on the struggling small businesses and vulnerable families that America’s plodding economic recovery risks leaving further behind.
In recent weeks, headline after headline has highlighted increasing costs for everything from groceries to gasoline. HB 1162 represents yet another additional expense for retailers, restaurants, and families teetering on the edge, creating additional hurdles to a strong, post-pandemic recovery.
Now more than ever, businesses and consumers need options and flexibility to best serve their customers. Notably, there is an ongoing nationwide shortage of both paper bags and reusable bags. This shortage is driving up costs for restaurants and retailers that are still navigating the ongoing pandemic and changes in consumer expectations.
These challenges, which are likely to outlast the pandemic, caused several states and localities — including Maine, Oregon, and Washington — to either suspend or delay plastic bag policies to provide additional flexibility to businesses as they try to cope with the pandemic’s economic fallout.
When costs for things like food, commodities, and bags go up, businesses will inevitably pass these increased costs on to consumers, who are already fighting against rapidly increasing prices for food and other necessities. While one or two dollars per bag may not mean much to some consumers, these costs can quickly add up for individuals and families on fixed incomes.
In fact, a University of Ottawa study on Toronto’s bag tax found that families at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum feel the burden of these policies the most.
Even in the midst of this economic certainty, proponents claim that Colorado must act on plastics, plastic bags in particular, to avert looming consequences for the environment arguing that bags are filling up landfills and littering our communities.
Despite their well-intentioned concerns, the data does not support the allegations that underpin their rationale for this bill.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s official data reveals that all plastic “bags and sacks” combined account for a meager 0.3% of municipal solid waste. The plastic retail bags banned under HB 1162 account for a small fraction of this number.
Also, when plastic retail bags do go to the landfill, most arrive “contaminated.” That’s because studies have shown that the vast majority of consumers reuse their bags for things like dog walking or lining small trash cans.
We can all agree that plastic bags should never end up in the environment and must be recycled or disposed of properly. However, litter surveys from across the country find that plastic bags account for less than 1% of litter.
This is why plastic bag bans have never been shown to have a meaningful impact on landfill volume or litter: it turns out that they make up a minuscule percentage of both categories.
Despite its framing as a plastic bag ban, HB 1162 requires stores and consumers switch to reusable bags with “stitched handles,” the vast majority of which are actually made from plastic — usually polypropylene or polyester.
Worse, these bags cannot be recycled anywhere in the United States and are almost exclusively imported from factories based in the world’s worst-polluting nations.
In fact, every life-cycle assessment of carryout bags ever conducted has found that compared with traditional plastic bags, these stitched-handled bags require significantly more reuses to offset their greater environmental impacts.
And because they cannot be recycled, every single one will eventually end up in a Colorado landfill.
Instead of rushing forward with a bill that will only drive more non-recyclable products into the state with unclear benefits for the environment, the Colorado Senate should focus on policies that will reduce burdens on struggling businesses and alleviate unnecessary burdens on Colorado’s families.
Zachary Taylor is the director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance.