When you think of Colorado, you probably imagine the majestic Rocky Mountains, tranquil open spaces, and robust wildlife; what you probably don’t imagine however, is our state’s out-of-control single-use plastic pollution problem.
In 2018 China stopped buying plastic recyclable materials from the United States. This led to a realistic understanding of the importance of local end markets and what types of plastic actually have monetary worth. The list of single-use plastic items that once carried value diminished, and I think it came as a shock to Colorado recyclers that the majority of the incredible amount of plastic we produce was most likely going to the landfill or, even worse, our natural spaces and neighborhoods.
In the age of information, many people know that plastic is bad for our water sources, air, soil, wildlife, and overall human health as it breaks into microplastics and its chemicals leach into our environment and natural resources. It is estimated that Americans consume between 74,000 and 121,000 particles of plastic each year through water and food intake, as well as inhalation. This concept is commonly portrayed as “eating a credit card” worth of plastic every week.
What is not as commonly known is that plastics also emit greenhouse gases that exacerbate the climate crisis through extraction, production, transportation and use, and they continue to emit gases as they heat up in Colorado’s overwhelmed landfills for years. If the current rate of production continues, plastics will potentially account for 20% of all consumption of fossil fuels and their emissions by 2050.
The climate crisis is already prevalent for Colorado, as 71.5% of the entire state as of this writing is considered to be experiencing severe drought, and has been for some time. In addition, last year our state experienced the Cameron Peak Fire, which burned 208,913 acres. It was the first fire in our state to burn over 200,000 acres, and overall the largest recorded wildfire in our state’s history. It was uncontrollable due to intense heat conditions.
Of all the single-use plastics, to-go plastic bags and styrofoam (also known as polystyrene) materials are exceptionally difficult to process, and when I worked at the Quail Street Recycling Center for the city of Lakewood, these are the materials I remember having to fish out of the roll-offs most frequently. The reason is because oftentimes both are considered unacceptable recycling contaminants, and if enough of either ends up in one batch of recycling, it’s tossed out entirely.
Plastic bags get caught in recycling machinery, and as a result facility employees have to manually remove them. Styrofoam, on the other hand, is undesirable due to its light weight and low density, which is difficult for automated sorting and requires its own equipment to process. Both are produced in mass, used only for short periods of time, and lack an efficient end market, which makes them almost inherently categorized as landfill.
Many Coloradans and municipalities would like to address these issues in their local communities, but due to a 1993 statewide preemption law, they are restricted from doing so.
As a response to these complications, House Bill 21-1162, also known as the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, was introduced this legislative session and is sponsored by Reps. Lisa Cutter and Alex Valdez, as well as Sen. Julia Gonzalez. This bill would ban to-go plastic bags and styrofoam containers from restaurants and retailers, as well as lift the preemption law.
The goal of the bill is to encourage consumers to use reusable bags by banning single-use plastic bags and putting a small fee on paper bags. The 10-cent fee on paper bags will partially benefit the retailer, and the establishment will have time to finish using its remaining plastic containers and bags before purchasing alternatives. Customers on government assistance will be excused from the fee.
The Plastic Pollution Reduction Act recently passed the House Energy and Environment Committee, and will reappear in the House Finance Committee for another vote on March 29.
This issue affects everyone in Colorado, as well as our future generations. This is a crucial first step in combating the plastic and climate crisis, and can’t be put on the back burner any longer. That is why we must contact and urge members of the House Finance Committee to vote yes on HB-1162.