Mountain towns close loopholes in their plastic bag bans after Walmart offers thicker, ‘reusable’ plastic bags

“Did anyone on that Zoom call actually touch one of those bags?” Councilwoman Amy Phillips asked at an Avon City Council meeting last month.

“I did it,” Councilman Russell Andrade said. “My first impression was that it really looked like a single-use disposable bag.”

Avon banned plastic bags in 2018 of all retailers, with the aim of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public from plastic bag pollution. Numerous Mountain towns in Colorado have passed similar laws to keep them out of rivers, trees, landfills and recycling centers – the bags block the machines.

So, Avon’s local Walmart recently approached the city with a question: can we give customers back free plastic bags, if they’re thicker and therefore meet the law’s definition of reusable?

Walmart officials say the bag is washable, can be reused more than 100 times, and is about 2.25 mils (thousandths of an inch) thick. This means it is considered reusable under Avon’s plastic bag ban.

But even if Walmart were to technically follow the law, a majority of Avon’s board members agreed that the move would defeat the intent of the city’s ordinance. In response, the city council plans to strengthen its plastic bag ban ordinance.

“If it looks disposable, it will eventually explode again on train tracks and in the river,” Phillips said.

Some say Walmart has found a “workaround”

City attorney Paul Wisor told the meeting that Walmart has found a “workaround” for communities in Colorado that have passed plastic bag ordinances.

“There’s nothing stopping us from saying, ‘Look, our point is still valid. We don’t want this thrown away, which it clearly will be. So we can change our standards,” Wisor said.

Walmart did not respond to CPR News’ request for an interview. The company has tried or has already introduced these plastic bags to other mountain towns in Colorado with laws in place to reduce their use.

“It’s definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Councilor Chico Thuon said at the Avon board meeting. “If you want to reverse [the bag ban] very quickly you will allow these bags to go on the street. And they will literally be on the street.”

Thuon agreed to the suggestion that the city should reformulate its rules to close what it saw as a “loophole.”

The district attorney and city staff will change the language to prevent new bags and bring the changes to city council.

Plastic bag taxes and plastic bag ban

Other mountain towns are also considering changing the wording of their plastic bag laws to block the workaround.

Instead of banning plastic bags, Frisco passed a 25-cent baggage tax in 2019 on disposable paper and plastic bags. Gilly Plog, environmental programs coordinator, said “it was a bit appalling to see how much revenue these bag fees were generating for the town.”

“We didn’t put this in place to make money,” Plog said. “We put this in place basically as a way to help change people’s behavior of using these non-reusable bags.”

The fee allowed the city to track the number of plastic bags used.

“We still see over a million bags in Frisco going out the door [annually] for a town that is only 3,000 people,” said Frisco Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Burley. “It was shocking for our council.

In response, the council earlier this year passed a total ban on disposable plastic bags which will come into force in September.

As Frisco attempts to close the loophole, Breckenridge is already allowing thicker bags

To stop Walmart and other stores from giving away stronger, reusable plastic bags, Frisco’s new ordinance won’t make exemptions for bags over a certain thickness.

“We immediately skipped that because we saw it as a loophole,” Burley said. “And there were a lot of companies, not just Walmart, that were looking to continue using plastic bags by moving to a thicker bag.”

Instead, their definition of a reusable plastic bag is a woven polypropylene bag, like the ones on sale.

Burley is also the sustainability coordinator for Breckenridge. Businesses there are allowed to apply for an exemption from city bag fees if their bags are 2.25 millimeters thick.

“There were about 50 to 60 businesses in Breckenridge that had applied for this exemption over the years,” Burley said. “Without singling anyone out, it’s a handful of companies that have kind of gone for the thicker bag to avoid having to collect and remit these fees on behalf of their customers.”

Breckenridge will also transition to bag bans in September and no longer have exemptions for thicker bags.

Democratic state lawmakers will introduce legislation this session to ban single-use plastic bags and plastic foam containers. It is another attempt to reduce plastic consumption after similar bills were blocked in committee last year.

Bryce K. Locke