Colorado Takes Big Action Against Single-Use Plastics

Environmental Policy Brief # 120
By: Katelyn Lewis | July 23, 2021

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Policy Summary

In a sweeping effort against plastic, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law a bill enabling municipalities to enforce local plastic bag and packaging ordinances as well as implementing a ban against the use of single-use plastic bags, polystyrene cups and containers statewide.

The passing of the law in July makes Colorado the first state to repeal a state preemption law on plastic waste, a type of policy that prevents local communities from going beyond state regulations. In this case, local governments will now be able to charge a fee or ban plastics outright sooner than the state’s planned dates.

Under the new law, most businesses and stores – excluding farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and small stores, defined as those with three or fewer locations in Colorado – will have to charge customers a 10-cent-per-bag fee for paper or plastic bags starting January 1, 2023, having until June 1, 2024 to use up their supplies.

But they will have to hand over 60% of the fee’s revenue to their local government, with those generated funds going toward enforcement costs or programs that educate citizens on the fee or other waste diversion efforts.

Those on food assistance programs would not be charged the 10-cent-per-bag fee, and medical plastics are also excluded from the ban. Grocery stores and retailers are also allowed to use the single-use plastic bags for bulk items or produce under the law, The Denver Gazette reports.

In addition, the law includes a ban on polystyrene food containers, starting on Jan. 1, 2024, with businesses having until then to use up their inventory. Colorado joins a handful of other states – New Jersey, Washington, and Virginia – in banning these often-called “Styrofoam” vessels.

Policy Analysis

The revocation of Colorado’s plastic preemption law comes more than 30 years after it was first passed. It’s the first successful bill for the regulation of single-use plastics to become law in the Centennial State since 2009.

The law makes Colorado the first state to remove preemption restrictions on plastic pollution for localities as well. It stands in sharp contrast against a recent trend in states invoking preemption laws to limit local governments’ authority on issues ranging from public health and police funding to gun control and climate change.

Colorado joins ten other states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – that have established laws banning single-use plastic bags.

The push for bans against single-use plastics comes as the reality of the inefficiency of recycling sinks in more at home.

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Photo taken from: The Colorado Sun

Despite Americans recycling a lot more, less is actually being recycled than perceived. The overall recycling rate in the United States was 32.1% in 2018, and less than 10% of the plastic waste generated that year was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A large portion of the disparity between what is thrown into the recycling bin and what is actually recycled depends on where that waste actually goes and the quality of the plastics tossed.

The United States, among other nations, used to send a large majority of its trash and recyclables to China. But, sparked by trade wars under the former U.S. President Donald Trump, China began implementing import bans against solid waste, including plastics, in 2017. Eventually, China’s imports of scrap plastics practically stopped in 2020, Forbes reports, causing most plastics, marked as recyclable or not, to end up in landfills or the ocean.

Plus, the single-use, low-quality nature of plastic bags and polystyrene containers means they’re inevitably bound for the landfills. Many local communities are facing increasing environmental stress with what to do with their trash as more than half of U.S. landfills are expected to hit capacity in the next decade.

Stopping or reducing the use of these single-use plastics altogether – through laws like Colorado’s bans and allowances for local communities to make their own, stricter rules – may be one of most feasible, actionable ways to actually reduce our plastic waste.

Engagement Resources​

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Plastic Pollution Coalition

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Environment Colorado

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Pew Trusts – Colorado to Become First State to Revers Ban on City Plastic Bag Laws

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The Denver Gazette – Gov. Jared Polis signs ban on single-use plastics, polystyrene into law,1%2C%202023.

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