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Angel of Shavano Recycling tried to use signs and messages on its Facebook page to guide Chaffee County residents how to protect the recycling stream. The warnings intensified last spring, when coronavirus fears made it difficult for employees to sort things that are not recyclable, like plastic grocery bags, from things that are, like milk and water bottles, and the company had to dump entire trailers of contaminated recyclables. The company will end its contract with the county on April 8, 2021, after 15 years. (Provided by Angel of Shavano Recycling)

Advocates of the mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle are piling up small victories in Colorado with a series of consumer fees and opt-in requirements that now reach into your kitchen junk drawer. 

The latest win for the movement is Denver’s “Skip the Stuff” ordinance, requiring consumers to ask for — or affirmatively accept when asked – extras like plastic utensils, napkins, and soy sauce or ketchup packets with their takeout and delivery orders. The city ordinance took effect this month, and posters explaining the rules are going up at local restaurants. 

State Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, said she will introduce a bill taking the utensils and condiments opt-in statewide. 

And throwaway plastic bottles may be next. Kendra Black, the Denver councilwoman who spearheaded the local utensil rules, has her eyes on the ubiquitous bottles that wind up swirling in the Pacific garbage patch as one of her next bills. 

The Diminishing Takeout Drawers movement gained momentum during the pandemic, when takeout and delivery boomed and local cabinets and pantries jammed up with Santiago’s napkins and Chick-fil-A Sauce. 

Proponents claiming near-term victories in the reduce-reuse-recycle battles can also cite: 

  • A Denver grocery bag fee now in place that will also go statewide under a new law, starting in 2023.

Black said she’s happy to see what proponents call the #SkiptheStuff ordinance get posted in front of consumers now that the regulatory flyers have been printed and distributed. 

“I’m pleased we are addressing single-use plastics at the city and state level,” she said. “The manufacturing and disposal of single-use plastics are a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses and climate change.”

Advocates say Colorado’s restaurant and delivery community largely supported the opt-ins. When GrubHub did an opt-in on its own in New York and New Jersey in late 2020, 80% of customers skipped the “stuff.” And 120,000 forks got to stay with their friends, instead of getting shunted aside, next to the AAA batteries in the junk drawer of a fourth-floor walkup.  

Many restaurants agree with Denver advocates’ claims that the opt-in move could save them each thousands of dollars a year in supply costs at a time when margins are tighter than ever. Elizabeth Nicholson, chief operating officer of takeout favorite Chook Charcoal Chicken, said at most 5% of customers will opt in. And each time someone opts out, it could save her 10 cents. 

utensils opt-in Denver ordinance SkipTheStuff recycling
Denver’s ordinance requiring customers to ask for utensils and condiments with takeout, instead of getting them automatically, takes effect in January 2022. (Denver city government poster for businesses)

The only challenge, Nicholson said, will be getting word of the ordinance to every single restaurant owner. 

“Two nights ago I got takeout, and I got a handful of napkins and some plastic forks that I certainly didn’t need or ask for,” she said. “So I think the hardest thing is gonna just be getting restaurants fully bought into it.”

Key trade groups like the Colorado Restaurant Association have influenced the recent ordinances and bills, but have not tried to scuttle them altogether. 

“The primary concern for our Denver members was that the ordinance needed to allow restaurant employees to offer single-use items rather than wait for customers to ask for them, which helps drive a positive customer experience — something that’s always top of mind for the restaurant industry,” said Mollie Steinemann, the restaurant group’s manager of government affairs. 

Sponsors included that language, Steinemann said, so “we stayed neutral on the ordinance as a whole.”

Titone said she expects the same request and subsequently the same neutrality for a statewide bill. To boost public awareness of the proposal, Titone said, her office plans a social media campaign asking consumers to post pictures of their own “takeout drawer.”

“There are lots and lots of people that have lots of stuff in a drawer already,” Titone said. “And we just don’t need to keep filling those drawers up and having that stuff in the trash.” 

Black did not offer details of her efforts in Denver on single-use plastic bottles. But she underlined that on the Skip the Stuff bill, it’s not a “ban,” and that the opt-in idea allows customers and businesses to get what they want while still cutting waste.

Most of the plastic used in consumer items still gets thrown in the landfill. The EPA estimates that of the 36 million tons of plastic generated in the U.S. each year, less than 9% is recycled

Environmental advocates in California, considered the national leader in legislating reduce-reuse-recycle policies, have struggled to pass laws to sharply boost those totals. So far, the assembly there has required plastic water bottles to contain recycled content in increasing increments in coming years. 

The Denver opt-in ordinance says customers who are given things without asking can fill out a complaint form online. One violation in a year gets a warning, a second violation can result in a $999 fine. The city adds, however, that it will try to work with any named restaurants rather than bring out the recycling police. 

Denver and Colorado lawmakers are trying to write the laws using gentle nudges instead of crackdowns, said Titone, who dismisses any claims the opt-ins are “nanny state” ideas. 

“This is not to say we know how to run your business better than you do,” Titone said. “This is the government really being the voice of those people that say enough is enough. Stop putting the stuff in a bag that I don’t want.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...