Out of Control Policy Blog

Benefits of Denver Plastic Bag Fee "Minuscule"

Denver is among several major U.S. cities including San Diego, Dallas, and New York City considering plastic bag taxes and bans. The idea is to nudge residents to go "green" by using less "single-use" plastic bags in favor of reusable bags in an effort to reduce waste and litter from plastic bags.

The proposed legislation in Denver, which is actually less onerous than a lot of recently passed ordinances which ban the use of plastic bags outright, would charge consumers a 5 cent fee (essentially a tax) for every paper and plastic bag used. Retailers would also need to keep track of the amount of reusable, paper, and plastic bags used by consumers at checkout. The city would retain 3 cents of every bag sold to pay for education campaigns and to buy reusable bags. Stores would get 2 cents to implement the program.

 At the request of Mayor Michael Hancock, who is against the City Council's bag tax measure, the Denver Office of Sustainability has been researching the potential impact of the proposed legislation. The Office's findings are fairly clear:

  • A bag fee would at best make only a "miniscule" contribution towards the City's 2020 goal of reducing waste sent to landfills by 20 percent. In fact high-density polyethylene bags, the kind most frequently given out at grocery stores, make up only 0.3% of municipal solid waste in Denver.
  • In terms of litter, the Office of Sustainability found that an in-depth study of litter associated with the bags that would be subject to the fee would be necessary before the city can sufficiently develop and recommend policy around the use of plastic bags. At current, the city has access only to "speculation and anecdotes" when debating litter issues related to the ordinance.

At the moment, the City Council is likely to pass the legislation with 7 of the 13 council members in support of the legislation. While Mayor Hancock has hinted he may veto the bill if passed by the City Council, he hasn't vetoed a bill in his two years in office so it's by no means a sure thing. At the very least, the take away of this report should be that more research is necessary and more questions need to be answered before such a fee is considered.

Read more from Reason on the impact plastic bag bans and taxes here and here

Victor Nava is Research Assistant


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