Revisiting Denver’s Bring Your Own Bag fee: Is it working as intended?

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Barbara MacFarlane wishes Denver would ban plastic bags altogether.

“You gotta roll with the times,” she said. “The times (now) are reusable.”

MacFarlane is the co-owner and self-proclaimed Queen Bee of Marczyk Fine Foods, a locally-owned neighborhood market that has two locations in Denver — one at 770 E. 17th Ave. in Uptown; and the other at 5100 E. Colfax Ave., which borders the Hale and South Park Hill neighborhoods.

Colorado has proposed a statewide ban on plastic bags expected to go into effect beginning in 2024, but in the meantime, shoppers across Denver are subject to a fee of 10 cents per disposable bag.

The Bring Your Own Bag program, which passed Denver City Council in December 2019 and was implemented in July 2021, requires retailers to charge 10 cents for a disposable bag.

Consumers are able to avoid the fee by bringing their own bag.

While all paper, plastic and compostable single-use disposable bags at most retail stores in Denver are subject to the fee, the smaller bags — such as those used for filling bulk items like nuts or produce, and those provided by pharmacists that contain prescription drugs — are not.

“Nobody really batted an eye,” MacFarlane said of the fee, adding that she believes her customers’ response has been neutral.

This could be because it isn’t just Marczyk enforcing the fee, MacFarlane said. As a city-and-countywide program, Marczyk is one of 1,090 Denver retailers enrolled in the BYOB.

Working as intended

BYOB is intended to encourage consumers to bring their own, reusable bags to help meet an overarching goal of reducing waste and preventing litter.

It is one of a few efforts — such as Pay As You Throw and Waste No More — that Denver is using as tools to meet waste diversion rate goals.

Now a year into the program, the BYOB seems to be working as it is intended to.

In a July 12 article by 9News, Denver’s Chief Climate Officer Grace Rink states that disposable bag usage is decreasing — with the city estimating that residents used four times as many disposable bags before the program was implemented.

At Marczyk, MacFarlane said she has seen an increase of customers making use of reusable bags. She estimated that use of a reusable bag is up from about only 10% to 20% of Marczyks’ customers using a reusable bag prior to BYOB’s implementation to about 65%.

Making adjustments to better serve consumers

Retail stores subject to the fee include, but are not limited to, convenience stores, department stores, retail chain stores, hardware stores, liquor stores and grocery stores. Restaurants, salons, auto mechanics and other businesses where retail sales are not the primary business activity are not required to charge the fee, nor are temporary vendors or those at events such as farmers markets.

While shoppers arm themselves with reusable bags or pay for bags, grocery stores have had to make adjustments as well.

Marczyk, for example, prepared for consumer needs by ordering different-sized paper bags, MacFarlane said.

Marczyk also used the program as a way to offer a new product: an upcycled bag, designed to meet the customer’s needs, MacFarlane said. It includes special pockets, such as one that can be used for a baguette and another for olive oil, for example, MacFarlane said.

Keeping it local, Marczyk worked with a local vendor, Mile High Workshop, to create reusable bags out of retired Denver-based organizations’ banners.

How the fee is spent

Of the 10 cents fee per bag, retailers keep 4 cents and the city receives 6 cents.

According to the 9News article, a spokesperson for Safeway “said that the grocery chain uses the money for training employees, providing customer education with posters and flyers about the bag fee, (offering) free bags to customers, non-profits and schools and producing internal training videos for staff.”

As of July 15, the city’s share of collected fees amounted to $1,631,773, said Winna MacLaren, spokesperson for Denver’s office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. The fee is not a tax, and cannot be used for general government expenses. Therefore, the city reports that these funds have been spent on public awareness campaigns, providing free reusable bags to consumers and program administration staff, MacLaren said.

A question of fairness

The bag fee is only charged when the store provides the shopper with new single-use plastic or paper bag. Individuals participating in state and federal food assistance programs are exempt from the fee.

Additionally, the rule includes a provision to provide free reusable bags for all residents, and there is no limit to the number of bags each person may have, MacLaren said. So far, the city has given away about 40,000 bags, MacLaren added.

The best way for people to obtain a free, reusable bag through the city is to attend an event or contact their district office to make a reservation and pick one up.

Though the city is making efforts to ensure every resident can participate, some residents question the equity of the program.

Nate Girard of south Denver said the city needs to make a better, ongoing effort to share information about where and how to get reusable bags. He added he was one of probably many who did not know that information was online, and wonders if the program exacerbates systemic barriers.

“Who is really paying for this program? It isn’t the wealthy people who were likely already using reusable bags,” Girard said. “It’s the individuals who can’t afford reusable bags to begin with. It is just another example of environmental inequities.”

A change in behavior

Others, like Nicole Meredith of Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, loves the program.

“I want to use less plastic in general for environmental reasons,” Meredith said.

Meredith moved to Denver in January, and came from a city that had a similar program. Denver, however, charges 5 cents more per bag, and the slight increase has been enough to incentivize Meredith to always remember to bring her own bags, she said.

“It makes me more mindful,” Meredith said.

Bring Your Own Bag, Denver, bag fee

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