Denver’s plan to reduce plastic waste with condiment option could be expanded statewide

Proponents of the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra are racking up small wins in Colorado with a series of consumer fees and membership requirements now reaching into your kitchen’s trash drawer.

The movement’s latest victory is Denver’s “Skip the Stuff” ordinance, which requires consumers to ask for — or affirmatively agree when asked — extras like plastic utensils, napkins and soy sauce packets. or ketchup with their takeout and delivery orders. The city’s ordinance went into effect this month, and posters explaining the rules are being put up in local restaurants.

State Representative Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, said she would introduce a bill taking opt-in utensils and condiments statewide.

And disposable plastic bottles could be next. Kendra Black, the Denver city councilwoman who spearheaded the local utensil rules, has her eyes on the ubiquitous bottles that end up swirling around in the Pacific trash can as one of her next bills.

The Diminishing Takeout Drawers movement gained momentum during the pandemic, when takeout and delivery boomed and local cupboards and pantries became cluttered with Santiago napkins and Chick-fil-A sauce.

Proponents claiming short-term victories in reduce-reuse-recycle battles can also cite:

  • A Denver grocery bag tax is now in place and will also apply statewide under a new law, starting in 2023.

Black said she was happy to see what supporters call the #SkiptheStuff ordinance being displayed in front of consumers now that the regulatory flyers have been printed and distributed.

“I’m excited that we’re tackling single-use plastics at the city and state level,” she said. “Making and disposing of single-use plastics is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change.”

Supporters say Colorado’s restaurant and delivery community has largely supported the opt-ins. When GrubHub opted in on its own in New York and New Jersey in late 2020, 80% of customers skipped the “stuff.” And 120,000 forks were able to stay with their friends, instead of being put aside, next to AAA batteries in the garbage drawer of a ground floor on the fourth floor.

Many restaurants agree with Denver advocates’ claims that opting-in could save them thousands of dollars a year in procurement costs at a time when margins are tighter than ever. Elizabeth Nicholson, chief operating officer of takeout favorite Chook Charcoal Chicken, said no more than 5% of customers would subscribe. And every time someone unsubscribes, it could save them 10 cents.

Denver’s ordinance requiring customers to request take-out utensils and condiments, instead of getting them automatically, goes into effect January 2022. (Denver City Government Poster for Businesses)

The only challenge, Nicholson said, will be getting every restaurant owner aware of the ordinance.

“Two nights ago I ordered takeout and received a handful of plastic napkins and forks that I certainly didn’t need or ask for,” he said. she declared. “So I think the hardest thing will just be to get the restaurants fully bought out.”

Key trade groups like the Colorado Restaurant Association have influenced recent ordinances and bills, but have not tried to completely scuttle them.

“The main concern of our Denver members was that the ordinance should allow restaurant employees to offer single-use items rather than waiting for customers to ask for them, which helps create a positive customer experience – whatever something that is always a priority for the restaurant. industry,” said Mollie Steinemann, government affairs manager for the restaurant group.

The sponsors included that language, Steinemann said, so “we remained neutral on the ordinance as a whole.”

Titone said she expects the same demand and subsequently the same neutrality for a statewide bill. To raise awareness of the proposal, Titone said, his office is planning a social media campaign asking consumers to post photos of their own “takeout drawer.”

“There are many, many people who already have a lot of stuff in a drawer,” Titone said. “And we just don’t need to keep stuffing those drawers and having those things in the trash.”

Black did not give details of his efforts in Denver on single-use plastic bottles. But she stressed that on the Skip the Stuff bill, it’s not a “ban” and that the opt-in idea allows customers and businesses to get what they want while reducing waste.

Most of the plastic used in consumer items still ends up in landfill. The EPA estimates that of the 36 million tons of plastic produced in the United States each year, less than 9% is recycled.

Environmental advocates in California, considered the national leader in legislation on reduce, reuse and recycle policies, have struggled to pass laws to sharply increase those totals. So far, assembly there has required plastic water bottles to contain more and more recycled content in the coming years.

Denver’s opt-in ordinance states that customers who receive things without asking can file an online complaint form. One violation per year receives a warning, a second violation can result in a $999 fine. The city adds, however, that it will try to work with named restaurants rather than bringing in the recycling police.

Lawmakers in Denver and Colorado are trying to craft laws using soft nudges instead of crackdowns, said Titone, who rejects any claims that opt-ins are “nanny state” ideas.

“That doesn’t mean we know how to run your business better than you do,” Titone said. “It is the government that is really the voice of these people who say enough is enough. Stop bagging things that I don’t want.

Bryce K. Locke