Ask Eartha: The ban on banning plastics |

Ask Eartha: The ban on banning plastics

Hayden van Andel
Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,
I want my town to ban plastic shopping bags. What can I do to make this happen?

Before we demand change from local lawmakers, we need to understand what we’re working with. In Colorado, there is a statute that restricts towns, cities and counties from banning or regulating any plastic products, making it illegal to ban things like plastic shopping bags and Styrofoam takeout containers.

That is why you might have seen your town adopt a plastic shopping bag tax or fee system ranging from 10-50 cents per bag instead of outright banning them. Yet there are some towns in Colorado, like Telluride and Aspen, that have banned plastic bags and charge a fee for paper bags, but they are holding back on expanding the ban to other items to limit the risk of a lawsuit.

Let’s take a look at what this statute does, the impacts it has on our communities, and how you can help.

The ban on banning plastics

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees recycling in the state, the statute passed in 1993 is just 36 words that sealed our recent fate: “Local Government Preemption. No unit of local government shall require or prohibit the use or sale of specific types of plastic materials or products or restrict or mandate containers, packaging, or labeling for any consumer products.”

It also requires labels on every plastic container identifying the type of plastic used to make those containers. That’s why your favorite tub of yogurt has a No. 5 printed on it.

The intention of lawmakers at that time was to increase recycling rates. The bill even states that recycling “is a matter of statewide concern.” At the same time, the plastics industry wanted to make sure they would be safe from municipalities restricting or banning their products. They lobbied, and the result was 36 words protecting their economic interests.

We have to keep in mind though that the national recycling rate in the U.S. has more than doubled since the bill was passed into law. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the national recycling rate was 16% in 1990. By 2017, it jumped to 35%. When the preemption was passed in 1993, lawmakers were working on ways to increase recycling rates in Colorado. They were not thinking about the long-term effects of single-use plastics on our communities.

The impacts on our communities

As we have seen in the past three decades, single-use plastics have overrun our communities. It’s not because of these statutes that plastics are so prolific in society. But the statutes have kept communities from regulating the plastics that have become serious issues.

Single-use plastics add to our landfills and create cleanup costs for local governments. Some opposed to banning plastics have suggested that bans will drive business owners to buy costly alternatives that use more resources in the production process. Nope. Communities like ours are getting creative. The town of Breckenridge partners with lodging companies to offer free reusable shopping bags for visitors. Frisco offers a reusable shopping bag exchange program and incorporates bags made from local recycled textiles from the Family & Intercultural Resource Center’s thrift stores.

What you can do

As an individual, the greatest impact you can have is to refuse these plastics in your daily life. Choose reusable options for your straws, shopping bags, to-go food containers and any other single-use plastics.

It’s essential to call or send a letter to your state representative to support repealing this preemption statute. And there are other bills up for consideration that, if passed, will help reduce single-use plastics.

  • House Bill 20-1162 would prohibit food establishments’ use of polystyrene containers.
  • House Bill 20-1163 would prohibit stores and retail food establishments from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use plastic stirrers, single-use plastic straws and expanded polystyrene foodservice products to customers at the point of sale.

So next time someone mentions banning (enter plastic product here), see if they know about the preemption statute and tell them to contact their state representative to support repealing it and their local town council to consider fees on single-use plastics.

“Ask Eartha Steward” is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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