Our View: Plastic bag fee won’t work


Editorial Board, May 11 through Sept. 21, 2011

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Laura Schmidt, community representative
  • Jim Miller, community representative

Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

Placing a fee on disposable bags used at large retailers like grocery stores and Walmart will only hurt Steamboat Springs residents. A better strategy would be to work with those large retailers to make more reusable bags available to residents free of charge.

On Sept. 6, Yampa Valley Recycles is scheduled to present a proposal to the Steamboat Springs City Council to impose a 20-cent fee on all disposable shopping bags, including paper and plastic, at large retailers. The definition of large retailer is yet to be determined; small retailers could choose to participate in the program.

Of the fee, 1 to 2 cents would go to the stores to cover processing fees. The rest would fund Yampa Valley Recycles’ Keep Our Mountain Green reusable bag program, specifically to provide the bags to people who receive assistance from social service organizations and to provide education.

Let us start by acknowledging that we use disposable plastic bags to distribute our Sunday newspaper and protect those newspapers from the weather. Let us also acknowledge that we understand and are sympathetic to what Yampa Valley Recycles is trying to do.

But a fee on plastic bags is a costly and wholly inadequate solution to the problem. We would urge the City Council to reject Yampa Valley Recycles’ proposal.

Reusable shopping bags have been touted as a green alternative to plastic bags for more than a decade. Unfortunately, their availability hasn’t done much to change behaviors — at least not significantly. Most people are well meaning. Most people want to protect the environment. But most people forget their reusable bags when they go shopping.

A fee is unlikely to change that; it will merely make life here just a little more expensive. Besides, it seems a little backward for Yampa Valley Recycles to plan to raise funds by charging a fee on a practice it aims to eliminate.

The ideal solution would be for the big stores to provide reusable bags to customers and eliminate plastic bags altogether. But given the disparities in costs between reusable and plastic bags, that seems unlikely to happen.

Here is a proposal that we think could work. What if Steamboat’s big three retailers — Safeway, City Market and Walmart — were to allow Yampa Valley Recycles to place reusable bag kiosks at the front of their stores. The kiosks could be stocked with thousands of reusable bags for shoppers to take freely. Shoppers also could drop reusable bags at the kiosks. Property management companies could collect bags left behind by visitors and return them to the kiosks or make them available to new guests.

More bags always would be going out than coming in. But local businesses could donate bags — brandished with the businesses’ logo and advertising messages — to the program. Yampa Valley Recycles volunteers could sometimes staff the kiosks, distribute educational materials and collect dropped-off bags for cleaning before they are used again.

Shoppers wouldn’t have to feel guilty about forgetting their reusable bags. More importantly they wouldn’t be charged unnecessarily for that minor sin. Throughout time, perhaps the major retailers would start to decrease the availability of plastic bags.

We can’t fix our plastic bag problem with a fee that mostly burdens residents. We can, however, begin to make progress with an approach that challenges businesses and residents alike to commit to the effort.

Say no to the fee. Give the kiosks a chance.


rhys jones 5 years, 8 months ago

Aw come on, I see an opportunity here. I want to be the guy who collects all the fees, then doles them out to the various benefactors -- all the other do-gooders who see an easy chance to make a buck flapping their gums and feeling superior, singing their green song all the way to the bank. I'll form another non-profit, and it'll be their Mercedes.


Andy Kennedy 5 years, 8 months ago

It is surprising to me that the board has not done more research on this controversial topic before issuing what sounds like a blanket statement.

Over 30 countries have banned the plastic bag, including China, who makes them for us. As many or more countries and US cities, including Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale, and Telluride, have opted for a green fee for bags instead because it DOES encourage change faster than free bags do, to the tune of 95% reduction of plastic bag use in Ireland.

I am also curious as to how the Pilot proposes to raise funds for their expensive suggestion, a budget that YVR simply can not raise, likely $5-10,000 per year for these reusable bags. I think you are assuming quite a bit in saying that residents and visitors will return these bags, when most visitors will likely take them home as Steamboat souvenirs.

I urge those of you who care strongly either way about this topic to listen to the facts and education power point on 9/6 to City Council before you make a decision.


George Danellis 5 years, 8 months ago

I appreciate that in disagreeing with a proposal, the editorial board is willing to propose an alternative. Particularly in this case, where the impacts of the pervasiveness of throw-away plastic bags are becoming clearer.

However, I think the solution proposed by the editorial board somewhat highlights the main challenges we tend to see regarding 'sustainability' (addressing environmental and social equity issues in support conditions for a vital local economy). That is, here and in most places, a narrow view and understanding of what the issues are means that acting effectively in the support of a vibrant, resilient community for the long-term is unlikely to happen. And one party is unlikely to come up with the best solution. Whether you are the paper's editorial board, city council, or a business leader, without a deeper understanding of the system conditions that promote human life, solutions to today's challenges will be less than they might be.

I encourage city and county leaders to become better educated about sustainability, and to engage key community stakeholders as it supports rational, effective action.


Jeff_Kibler 5 years, 8 months ago

George, please explain why an opinion that fundamentally disagrees with yours is a "narrow view?" I'm only "open-minded" if I agree with you? I'm envious of your education above all others.


rhys jones 5 years, 8 months ago

We recycle most of our grocery bags anyway -- they are the perfect size for trash can liners, and sometimes we even double up, owing to holes. These replace the Glad can liners which might otherwise be there, at far less expense. Maybe can-liner sales are slumping. They're all headed past Milner anyway. I would contend that there, grocery bags represent less of a loss than the store-bought jobbies, being thinner. I don't hear City Market complaining about buying our trash bags; we already paid for them. Who else is digging into my pockets now?


ybul 5 years, 8 months ago

What about banning PV arrays? They are not a very sustainable product either without subsidies today. The off gassing in their production is a much worse greenhouse gas than others.

That seems to be something promoted by the "sustainable" community. Yet, the energy needed to create it versus the energy produced is not a heck of a large payback.

Who decides what is sustainable and what is not. And to think that any human has enough of a deeper understanding is absurd.

Hybrid cars another champion of the sustainable crowd, when you throw in the replacement batter costs (environmentally - financially is it really that great of an option - what about diesels). For that matter why not simply use the fischer tropsche process with solar heaters - windmills to make hydrogen and then carbon either recycled in the process or from coal to manufacture oil.

I agree with the open minded comment as I really wonder if the sustainability people know what is sustainable.


sledneck 5 years, 8 months ago

"Sustainability"... the new "Salvation" for religious zealots of the Church of the Holy Environment.

When it comes to our local, state or national debt the sustainability crowd is AWOL. Ditto for agriculture; using our aquifers for ethanol production. Same's true for "approved" sports activities. Doesn't matter how much electricity those ski lifts use or how much plastic (or whatever) is in those skis. Nope, thats an "approved" activity so let's not discuss it.

Just like the "pro-choice" thing only counts for one specific thing, so too with sustainability.


lessworkmoreskiing 5 years, 8 months ago

Now what are we gonna use to clean up after our dogs?

20 cents a bag is a little steep, but this concept is awesome! It will help cut down on the amount of bags people are using at the store and encourage them to BUY their own re-usable bag unless they like to pay extra every time... Not that many people in this world recycle; we need to force them to make different choices.


Jeff_Kibler 5 years, 8 months ago

If anyone walks the walk vis-à-vis sustainability, it's ybul. We enjoy his steaks and are looking forward to his and Lisa's local cheese.

Then we have the illustrious Sustainability Consultants:


Let's see, Managing Director, Salani Surf Resort?

http://www.salanisurfresort.com/ http://www.salanisurfresort.com/salani_surfing.html

How do the "no more than 12 surfing guests at any one time" get there? I'm sure they paddle there on their sea kayaks. Wouldn't dare burn any Jet A-1 to fly there, 'cause that ain't sustainable.


ybul 5 years, 8 months ago

Jeff, While much of what I try to do is sustainable, much I do is not - just a product of living in the world we do today - which I am not sure I desire to move back to another time which is what would be required for sustainability (unless we do start making oil or find another energy source).


1999 5 years, 8 months ago

this is taken from an NPR article....

Ultimately, even if we eliminate billions of grocery bags from the market, how much good will it do?

"I hate to say it, but not much," Lilienfield says.

In the big picture, he says, the big fuss around shopping bags is really just a distraction.

"The bag is not the environmental bogey-person that everybody thinks it is," he says. "If you look at the entire grocery package that you bought, the bag may account for 1 to 2 percent of the environmental impact.

"The other packaging may account for 7 percent. Ninety percent is accounted for by the products you buy. That's where all the environmental impact is."

As people begin to think more about their shopping bags, Lilienfield says he hopes they'll also start to think more about what's in the bag as well.


Paul Brabenec 5 years, 8 months ago

What people are used to is not bringing any kind of bag with them. The plastic bags provided now aren't free, we pay for them in our grocery prices. They are mostly reused for disposing of pet waste. So how about requiring the use of bags made of the biodegradable material I've seen in Boulder at the parks for pet waste? This company offers biodegradable one-trip bags that are used just like the ones we use now but would break down in the landfill rather than preserve our dog poop for posterity. http://www.biobagusa.com/plastic-shopping-bag.html thank you.


Rob Douglas 5 years, 8 months ago

"Alarming forecasts of humans harming themselves and the environment by their actions are a common social phenomenon. They become widely believed for a time, cause unnecessary anxiety, and result in costly government policies, then fade from public attention as it becomes more difficult to maintain the alarm in the face of counter-evidence and closer public scrutiny. We hope that this phenomenon of false environmental alarms will become widely recognized so that in the future we can avoid the very real costs that they impose on the most vulnerable people, and then on all of us." See: http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/past-alarmism-and-the-future-of-manmade-global-warming/


rhys jones 5 years, 8 months ago

paul -- I wasn't going to mention it, it seemed slightly off-topic, but you raise a good point. Ski Corp now uses only biodegradable materials, for food packaging, many of which resemble plastic, and are made of vegetable oil, if I am not mistaken. I don't know how production costs might vary, but this seems a viable option to plastic. Might put some American farmers back to work, get them off subsidies, and I further disqualify myself as to the financial aspects, being just a guppy in that ocean.

I might stray off-topic just a bit further... but back when I was in Junior High -- a while, my friends -- we did hydrolysis of water in Science. Stick in a couple of electrodes, electrify them, split the hydrogen and oxygen to be stored separately, remix the gases, apply a spark, and BOOM!! it explodes, as it recombines to water. So why was THAT technology never pursued in earnest? If it was, the oil companies bought it out years ago, a very real threat to their business. As was the mythical 70-mpg carburetor. These are "sustainable" technologies, quashed by the dollar.

One last thought on "sustainable": Some people make a good living, just talking about it, getting others to foot the bill. Please don't mandate that I be one of their benefactors.


sedgemo 5 years, 8 months ago

I have a few closer-to-home concerns about paying extra each time for bags.

First, I rarely get everything home without a bag blowing open, even if I load them sparingly. The bags are too flimsy to do the job required, especially when lugging up two flights of stairs. I'll be super mad if I have to pay more for crummier bags and then have to double them up to get my expensive groceries home intact.

Split bags can't be recycled for dogs, trash, or further grocery shopping as well. I'd submit there is more waste caused by blown out bags than anyone has accounted for. Would we be offered refunds for useless bags, or ruined groceries?

Second, I have serious concerns about how they would be kept sanitized for reuse... at least when you pull them from their original bundle you know they are relatively clean. With reused, who knows? Who handled them? What was in them? How could you feel good about putting your food in them, then setting them on your kitchen counter at home? Or in your business kitchen???

What would it cost to process and re-sanitize used bags? Or would we be paying extra for bags we just "hope" are clean?

This approach to "green" makes me well, turn green!

And third, I never know for sure how much I will buy when I finally get into the store, I shop the deals so sometimes take advantage of the "ten for ten" specials etc. I'd have to carry a backpack full of bags into the store since each bag only holds about two cans without tearing.

Wouldn't it be more cost effective to be able to order stuff online, say, and have ONE car or van deliver the goods to multiple addresses instead of all of us driving in and trying to park in limited space? Most everyone I know hates shopping anyway, and will enjoy it less when trying to jam more stuff into fewer flimsy bags to save a few bucks.


mtntrekker 5 years, 8 months ago

City Market used to deduct 5 cents per reusable bag from your grocery bill. They do not advertise that and you have to tell the cashier. (Not sure if they still do that). If city market would deduct 10 or 15 cents per reusable bag, then more people would go that way instead of using plastic bags. Also, they need to teach the courtesy clerks better bagging teqniques. Some of the clerks put my one loaf of bread in one bag, my four containers of yogurt in another bag, my half gallon of milk in another bag. They use twice as many bags as necessary. That's why so many plastic bags are out there. I bought dish soap and paper plates at Walmart, the cashier automatically put them in a bag. Everybody will just grab the bag. I took them out of the bag and carried them out. People need to get over their laziness. Not using so many plastic bags would save these companies $$$ every day. Obviously these companies are so big they do not see what is going on in their stores. And yes, charging 20 cents per plastic bag is steep.


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