Wildlife eating plastic, the premature snowmelt on mountain peaks from global warming and maxed-out landfills were just a few environmental images evoked by supporters of a 10-cent fee on checkout plastic and paper bags during a public hearing Tuesday.
The fee was viewed as a small but important step toward addressing environmental wrongs.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Mitch Harwood said. “We’re a progressive community.”
Opponents responded that it was a “tax on the food bill,” a loss of consumer choice and government overreach.
“The American people are too stupid to know plastic bags are bad,” Jordan Golson said sarcastically. “This is the government telling them what to do.”
The business community also seemed opposed.
Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said 62 percent in a chamber survey of members disagreed with the fee.
Another speaker, David Peters, predicted lawsuits from litigants who viewed the fee as an unlawful tax.
Such a complicated issue, city councilors determined, needed more research. Councilors asked city staff members to research how to apply the fee to retailers. It likely would be placed on stores with 25,000 square feet or more. Also, they wanted ideas about how revenue could be capped so it’s not a money-maker for stores.
Managers of Durango’s four largest retailers, Walmart, Albertsons and two City Markets, will be invited to a council study session.
Councilors also wondered if it should be part of a city election in November.
So arguments for and against the fee could be recycled until then.
On the council, the only opponent appeared to be Councilor Keith Brant, who cited costs to the city. He argued for more voluntary efforts, such as expanding recycling and picking up wasted food from restaurants before it goes into the landfill.
“We need to focus on the bigger picture and do things that are meaningful. We don’t need an ordinance,” Brant said.
Councilor Dean Brookie said a 10-cent fee was building a consciousness about consumption.
“We’ve created a huge environmental awareness,” Brookie said. “I think it’s already successful.”
Mayor Dick White said there was “something absolutely crazy” about bringing plastic bags home from the grocery store “week after week after week.”
“There are real environmental and financial costs that we’re all paying,” White said, adding that costs probably are higher here because Durango is so isolated.
Brookie said the fee was in line with the city’s sustainability goals. He said it’s not going to cost him anything to take a reusable bag to the grocery store.
Councilors Christina Rinderle and Brookie recalled reusing “everything” as part of their families’ conservation ethic.
Rinderle emphasized that the council was being responsive to a resident-driven initiative that gathered 1,000 signatures.
“I just want to make that clear. It wasn’t something that we thought, ‘Oh, what else do we have to do this year?’” said Rinderle, who joked that her preference was to talk about accessory dwellings.
Joshua Jackson, manager of Durango Natural Foods, said his store’s ban on plastic bags has been a nonissue.
“Granted, we have a left-wing clientele,” Jackson said jokingly.