Ask Eartha: The plastic bag blues |

Ask Eartha: The plastic bag blues

I heard plastic bags are being banned in Telluride. Is there anything like that happening around here?


Plastic and paper bags are like bad boyfriends, easy to dispose of. Unfortunately, towns in Summit County have yet to cut ties with disposable bags through a ban or a fee.

Disposable bags are used at an alarming rate, even when most folks realize reusable bags are the operable choice. While it’s doubtful you’ve seen a sea turtle gagging on a plastic bag in Lake Dillon, it is likely you’ve encountered bag or two littering our bike paths and forests. It’s especially easy to put our dependence of disposable bags into perspective when you visit the Summit County landfill and see an ocean of bags clinging to the fences and surrounding trees.

Most plastic bags are made from a type of plastic called polyethylene, and 80 percent of polyethylene is produced from natural gas – an abundant, yet non-renewable resource. A plastic bag’s useful life may be counted in minutes, but it can take a plastic bag thousands of years to break down (if ever) in a landfill environment. When plastic bags end up as litter, they turn into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight. These small plastic pieces, often referred to as nurdles, can make their way into water and soil.

In 2009, Summit County took action against single-use plastic bags by participating in a reusable bag challenge. Summit County placed third in the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST) Reusable Bag Challenge; which pitted 31 Rocky Mountain towns against one other to determine which town could reduce single-use disposable bag consumption the most over a six-month period. Our community saved 411,680 plastic bags in six months and saved nearly 40 bags per person (based on town population).

A year after the CAST Reusable Bag Challenge, the Town of Telluride took further action by passing an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. The ordinance is intended to reduce the consumption and disposal of one-time-use disposable bags and promote durable and reusable bags. Telluride has received state and national media attention for taking the environmental lead in the fight against disposable bags.

Telluride’s ordinance requires a ban on plastic bags in groceries stores and charges a 10-cent fee for every paper bag provided. Smaller retailers have the option to opt into the program. If a retailer opts in, the retailer keeps 5 cents of the 10-cent fee per paper bag to cover administrative costs. The 10-cent fee goes into effect in January while the town-wide bag on plastic bags commences in March, giving time for retailers to use up their current inventory of bags.

Communities worldwide are taking similar action against disposable bags. Ireland reduced bag use by 90 percent through charging 15 cents per plastic bag. Thirty towns in Alaska have banned plastic bag use. San Francisco and Oakland require large supermarkets to only offer biodegradable plastic bags (both cities have the infrastructure to collect compost city-wide). Washington, DC imposed a 5-cent tax on plastic bags and saw huge results: Plastic bag use dropped from 22.5 million to 3 million bags per month. Furthermore, the city used the $150,000 in revenue from the program to clean up the Anacostia River.

Here in Summit County, similar forms of action are seemingly absent. Summit County’s reusable bag challenge might be over but the problem is still present. We want to know what type of action you think would be appropriate for our mountain community to take to curb the consumption of disposable bags, both plastic and paper. If you’re interested and want to be involved in learning more about this issue and being part of a solution, please contact the High Country Conservation.

Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry and Erin Makowsky, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha at or to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.