The new fee on disposable bags and phasing out single-use plastic bags next year will help protect Colorado’s environment and public health by slowing the ever-worsening plastic pollution crisis. Learning more about the problem with single-use plastic bags underscores the significance of this proven policy solution. Some of the problems with single-use plastics include:
- The sheer number of single-use plastic bags. The Colorado Public Interest Research Group estimates 4.6 million plastic bags are used in Colorado daily. Single-use plastic bags were the most commonly found litter in Colorado’s streams.
- Plastic bags easily get blown into the environment and break down into dust-like microplastics, polluting soils and water systems. We are ingesting, on average, a credit card’s worth of plastic every week through our food, water, and the air we breathe.
- Plastics are made from fossil fuels and contribute to climate emissions throughout their lifecycle. The plastics industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050.
- Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected because plastic production facilities and disposal sites are more likely to be located in these communities. This production of single-use plastics emits toxic chemicals linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive effects.
These problems will only worsen if we continue on the track we are on, but the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, signed into law last summer, addresses these issues by reducing the amount of single-use plastics used in the first place.
We can’t recycle our way out of the problem
Only 9% of the plastics ever produced on the earth have been recycled. The remaining plastic waste ends up in our oceans, streams, parks, and landfills. It is more complicated and expensive to recycle plastics compared to other materials, and most plastic products cannot be recycled. Plastic bags are absolutely not recyclable in curbside recycling programs; they are the most common contaminant in recycling sorting facilities, clogging and damaging machines and endangering workers.
When plastic bags are collected separately for recycling, they are down-cycled into other materials like decking, which then cannot be recycled and must eventually be landfilled. As long as we keep producing plastic bags, we will continue to extract fossil fuels and pollute our environment.
Switching to “biodegradable” single-use bags is not a solution and only perpetuates our unsustainable resource extraction and disposal. The term “biodegradable” is an unofficial term used for marketing purposes; all plastic ultimately is “biodegradable,” in the sense that over time with exposure to air, sunlight, and water, it will break down into smaller plastic pieces, contaminating our environment and entering our food streams. “Biodegradable” does NOT mean that the plastic has been proven to decompose entirely.
Paper bags also have a significant environmental impact; they use large quantities of water for production and require the logging of forests if not made from 100% recycled content. The best alternative is reusable bags that can be used for years and years. Reusable bags are much more durable, can be insulated, and can hold more weight than single-use bags.
The Solution to Pollution
Fees and bans on single-use bags have been enacted worldwide, and the data overwhelmingly shows that this policy model works. Steamboat Springs and Fort Collins have seen an 85% reduction in paper and plastic bag usage after passing plastic bag bans and paper bag fees in 2019 and 2021, respectively. With a bag fee on paper bags, customers in cities like Aspen bring their own reusable bags or are skipping single-use bags altogether.
In a large study of existing life-cycle assessments, the United Nations recently concluded that all products intended for single use are the problem, regardless of their material. The study found that “most often, reusable products have lower environmental impacts than single-use products…the more times a product can be used the lower the environmental impact of that product.” If the average American takes home 365 single-use plastic bags a year, each person could save 20,000 or more bags in a lifetime if they switched to reusable bags.
Thankfully, the Colorado Legislature and Gov. Jared Polis have acted to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic waste statewide. The Plastic Pollution Reduction Act created a bag fee statewide and will phase out single-use plastic bags entirely in 2024. There are exemptions for residents enrolled in state and federal food assistance programs and stores have until June 1, 2024, to use their existing bag inventory.
It does not make sense to continuously pump out fossil fuels to be turned into plastic bags that are used for a few minutes just to end up in a landfill, clog recycling systems, or crumble into microscopic pollution. The Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, with its bag fees and plastic bag ban, helps protect our beautiful state and the health of Coloradans – and all those downstream of us.