Shoppers likely would see a 10-cent fee per plastic and paper disposable bags at the checkouts of major supermarkets and Walmart by early 2014, according to policy direction given to city staff by the Durango City Council during a Tuesday study session.
The proposal still must come back for a formal vote at a regular council meeting, but the fee had strong support from four of the five councilors: Sweetie Marbury, Christina Rinderle, Dean Brookie and Dick White.
Councilor Keith Brant was the only opponent, predicting there would be push-back and wondering what the city was trying to achieve with a mostly symbolic gesture, especially because plastic bags take up less than 1 percent of the landfill. Brant worried about a “slippery slope” of the government imposing its values on others.
Brant said the city could do more for the environment by expanding the distribution of single-stream recycling bins and allowing consumers to pay city water bills online instead of issuing paper bills.
But Rinderle said the fee is about “creating that awareness. It changes behavior.”
As a practical effect, White said the 10-cent fees have reduced the use of disposable bags by 90 percent in cities such as Washington, D.C.
Marbury brought a list of 90 jurisdictions in the United States that have enacted some kind of restriction on plastic bags, including Hawaii, major cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle and smaller locales like Homer, Alaska, and Dare County, North Carolina.
Unlike Durango, many of the locations with the plastic restrictions are seaside communities that presumably are sensitive to the buildup of disposable plastic in the ocean.
Councilors argued they are a nuisance here, too, as city staff estimated that 7.2 million bags are distributed annually, or about 431 bags per person.
“Oh, my goodness,” Marbury said. “I think I have seen them blowing on (U.S. Highway) 550.” She said the plastic bags make the city look “trashy.”
Brookie, a fisherman, said plastic bags frequently are pulled out of the Animas River, too, during river cleanups.
White acknowledged there was grass-roots support for requiring more stores to impose a fee, but the councilors decided to start small and re-evaluate later. It made sense to start with supermarkets because consumers shop more frequently for groceries.
The stores, however, are likely to be defined in ordinance by square footage rather than what they sell.
Staff members thought the affected stores would be Walmart, the two City Markets and Albertsons.
The 10-cent fee would be split between the store and the city with each getting a nickel to cover their administrative costs as well as to pay for educational outreach.
The city also would like to make reusable bags available to low-income consumers, but a hardship clause would excuse low-income consumers, such as those on food assistance, from paying the fee.
Because the city plans to have a six-month preparation time, the ordinance likely would not take effect until early next year.
Councilors acknowledged there could be unintended consequences. One problem faced by supermarkets in cities with plastic-bag restrictions is that people carry out their groceries with plastic handheld baskets and then drive off with them.