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A Walmart clerk loads purchases into a branded bag at the store in Lafayette, Colorado, where signs remind shoppers to bring their own bags to the store or pay 74 cents for a reusable bag at the check stand. The store will stop stocking paper and plastic bags on Jan. 1, 2023. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

With statewide plastic and paper bag fees arriving in Colorado on Jan. 1, ushering in a new era of reuse and recycling, governments and private companies are boosting their efforts to make the transition meaningful and workable.

Walmart is jumping past the new state law on plastic and foregoing disposable bags altogether — plastic or paper — at its Colorado checkout stands. Delivery customers can still pay 10 cents for paper bags, but everyone else must bring reusable bags or buy what Walmart calls its affordable options. 

Fort Collins is giving away thousands of reusable bags, washing and distributing donated “gently used” totes, and pointing to initial studies of its preexisting city law showing plastic fees cut use of the hard-to-recycle bags by 85%. 

And conservation groups are turning attention to the second part of the statewide waste reduction law that kicks in Jan. 1, 2024, banning most use of styrofoam takeout containers. Colorado is making real progress, they say, in breaking a wasteful consumption cycle that produces too much unrecyclable plastic and warms the planet with excessive fossil fuel use. 

“When the Plastics Pollution Reduction Act was passed, it was the second-most comprehensive plastic reduction law in the country,” said Randy Moorman of the nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle. “For Colorado to be a leader on this, it’s really important.” 

To environmental groups, the act of banning single-use bags is both effective and symbolic: To them, plastic bags stuck in tree branches and choking river banks represent a fossil fuel-driven consumer economy in dire need of new guard rails. 

The 2021 act takes a number of major steps

  • From Jan. 1 through the end of the year retailers must charge 10 cents for each disposable plastic or paper bag customers use. Small retailers still have exemptions, and cities that passed laws charging even more can keep their laws. 
  • Starting Jan. 1, 2024, retailers can only supply recycled paper bags at 10 cents each; plastic bags are banned. 
  • Styrofoam, or polystyrene, food containers are banned in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2024. 

MORE: Colorado shoppers will be charged 10 cents per plastic and paper bag starting Jan. 1

Conservation groups are also trying to get plastic takeout utensils banned statewide, but have not yet been successful. Some local governments have passed a single-use utensils ban. 

Walmart, while skipping ahead with an immediate self-imposed ban, wants customers to know that higher bag charges in some locations are the results of previous local laws. The Walmart in Steamboat Springs, for example, will continue to charge 20 cents a delivery bag, while Frisco will be charging 25 cents, regional Walmart spokeswoman Lauren Willis said. 

“Our focus will remain on ensuring our customers can transition as easily as possible, including providing multiple options of affordable reusable bags and the continued convenience of delivery in paper bags,” Willis said. 

Recycling and reduction advocates are all for any company or jurisdiction going beyond the new state minimum. 

“That is great news from Walmart, taking the lead to reduce unnecessary plastic and single use bags,” Moorman said. “We hope other retail stores follow their lead. Large retail stores like Walmart are the main source of plastic bags found in our environment.”

Fort Collins passed its own 10 cent bag fee and recycling expansion measures in 2021, and the fees began in mid-2022. With two quarters of fee collections now behind them, Fort Collins has seen an 85% reduction in plastic bag use, said Holly Pummell, senior sustainability specialist for the city of 169,000. 

“So far, it’s been very successful,” Pummell said. 

Fort Collins prepared for its local ordinance and the pending state law by distributing 10,000 reusable bags at community events, and targeting 300 lower income households for three free reusable bags each.

As with the state-implemented bag fee, local ordinances are designed to split the 10-cent fee between the retailers, to defray costs of collecting fees and providing alternatives, and local government, which can use the revenue to promote recycling and other climate-oriented programs. 

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Fort Collins officials are also working with local restaurants and other food businesses to be ready for the 2024 styrofoam ban, helping them seek alternative containers and reminding them how long they can use existing stock after Jan. 1 of that year. 

“We’ve learned a lot from our disposal bag implementation,” Pummell said.

King Soopers Colorado spokeswoman Jessica Trowbridge said the state’s largest grocery chain has been preparing for the Jan. 1 switch, and also continues work on its Zero Hunger/Zero Waste project to phase out disposable plastic at checkout altogether before January 2024. 

“We have already implemented signage in-store to help educate customers on the bag fee legislation and will also be increasing the number of reusable bags available for purchase,” Trowbridge said. 

A 2020 review by Steamboat Springs of the first year of its local plastic bag fee found a similar 85% drop in plastic bag use from the previous average.

Staff estimated Steamboat shoppers used about 580,000 bags in a year once the fee began, down sharply from 3.8 million bags used in previous years. The fee also generated about $74,000 for the city’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Account, which was used to educate people about reusable bags and to implement two other waste reduction and recycling projects.

Coloradans shouldn’t discount the new local and state laws’ impact on their beloved outdoor surroundings, Moorman said. When the deep freeze blew down from Wyoming on Wednesday afternoon, there were fewer plastic bags on the loose to blow around Colorado cities, and there will be far fewer next year. 

“That litter has an impact on our quality of life,” Moorman said. “So we feel like this is a very significant step for us to take.” 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver