Town adapts to life without plastic

Acceptance rate high 18 months after ban on bags, Telluride officials say

This sign on the front door at Clark’s Market in Telluride occasionally will send shoppers back to their cars for their reusable bags. The town banned plastic bags 18 months ago. Enlarge photo

JIM HAUG/Durango Herald

This sign on the front door at Clark’s Market in Telluride occasionally will send shoppers back to their cars for their reusable bags. The town banned plastic bags 18 months ago.

TELLURIDE – Since Telluride banned plastic bags 18 months ago, Kristine Hilbert said she’s become educated about the nuisance of plastic, which is notorious for not decomposing and choking the wildlife that eat it.

“I don’t even like to use Tupperware anymore,” said Hilbert outside Clark’s Market, where a sign on the front door asks customers if they have remembered to bring their reusable bags. Otherwise, they will be charged 10 cents per paper bag.

The ban “took a little while to get used to, but I’m thankful. I feel I’m much more environmentally responsible,” Hilbert said.

A similar proposal would not ban plastic bags in Durango, but it would charge consumers 10 cents per plastic or paper bag at a large grocery store. Durango would follow the spirit of 81 cities such as Telluride nationwide that have banned plastic bags, according to a count in Waste and Recycling News.

There’s been vocal opposition to the proposal in Durango, but the consensus in Telluride is that the uproar would die down soon if restrictions went into effect.

Mayor Stu Fraser said that the Village Market posted his and the town manager’s phone numbers for customers to call to complain.

“I never got a call,” Fraser said.

Mark DeMist, manager of Clark’s, was “expecting people to bitch for at least a year. It was done after a month. The tourist seems to understand when they go up to hippie town Telluride.”

In comparison, Julie Grubbs, a second-home owner in Telluride, said her hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., is “the most frivolous and wasteful community. This (ban) is so refreshing, I like it. I’m happy to tote my own things.”

Visitors also appreciate that “we’re not an easy place to get to,” the mayor said. “We believe when people come here, they expect more from us.”

“We live in a box canyon,” he said. “Everything gets brought in. What we send out is our trash. So we have to minimize that.”

DeMist estimated that the ban eliminated a quarter-million plastic bags from Clark’s alone.

In Durango, it would be “in the millions probably,” DeMist said.

Because of Telluride’s ban, “we don’t see plastic bags hanging from fences or blowing around town in the wind anymore,” DeMist said.

The opposition

To ease the transition to the ban, the town of Telluride gave merchants six months’ notice and leeway to use up their inventory of plastic bags. While the town has tried to be reasonable, it has encountered opposition.

“I won’t say the community bought into it 100 percent because there’s one retailer who went out and bought 10,000 bags to show what he can do,” Fraser said.

“The Village Market was adamantly against it, too,” he said. “They thought it was social engineering – we shouldn’t be forcing this. They were putting up our phone numbers in their store.”

Bob Franzese, owner of Black Bear Trading Co., which sells cowboy hats and Western fashion accessories, openly flouts the ban.

“Truthfully, I refuse to abide by the rules,” Franzese said. “I have a five-year supply. I told them you can buy me out, or I’m going to use them. There’s nothing I’m doing that’s illegal.”

Franzese thinks the town’s exemptions to the ban are arbitrary. Perishables, which include books, and oversize items such as paintings are exempted.

“You can use plastic bags for pot but not other things? How absurd,” he said. “We get people every day who say they are incensed that they are spending real money on stuff of real value that they want protected.”

Wanda Kadlec, the store manager, said, “We actually have people who come in and ask for our bags to put their stuff in, especially when it’s raining or snowing.”

Franzese also thinks the ban is hypocritical for a ski town that consumes a lot of plastic in the form of skis and boots. He also thinks it is a “smoke screen” for a town that could be doing a lot more in the way of sustainability, noting the lack of a recycling center in San Miguel County.

Walter Wright, the zero waste coordinator for Eco-Action Partners, a nonprofit jointly funded by Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County, said Telluride contracts with private haulers to take recyclables to a regional facility.

Fraser said Telluride is “trying to do zero waste through comporting, recycling, resource recovery – we’re trying to do all these things. It’s tough. It’s not easy. We’re growing food here more and more, but we have a very short growing season.”

Experiences elsewhere

Other communities have encountered opposition to plastic-bag restrictions.

A lawsuit against the city of Aspen charges that its fee of 20 cents per paper bag is really a tax and unconstitutional because the issue was not put to the voters.

In Los Angeles County, an economic study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found a ban on plastic bags can negatively impact the sales of the stores inside the ban area and increase sales for nearby stores not affected by the same restrictions.

In Durango, city officials already complain about losing $40 million in sales-tax revenue annually as the result of local shoppers going to Farmington for big-box shopping.

As a matter of policy, people in Telluride did not think Durango’s proposal simply to impose fees on plastic and paper bags would be very effective.

“I guarantee you the people will buy the plastic bags,” said DeMist, the manager at Clark’s. “They would rather have the plastic bags than the paper bags. If nothing else, they can still use the plastic bags for picking up dog poop or garbage bags in their car.”

DeMist said he is surprised at how well people have adapted to the ban.

“We probably run 80 to 90 percent of the locals bringing their own bags,” he said. “We just have to work on the rental market.”

Daiva Chesonis, co-owner of Between the Covers bookstore, said visitors can be enlightened, too.

‘“We had some Irish people in here, too,” she said. Noting the ban, “They were like, ‘Ireland did this eight years ago. We’re an island. What’s the issue? Get over it, people.’ I loved that.”

Erica Jurecki loads her SUV with reusable grocery bags in Telluride. Enlarge photo

JIM HAUG/Durango Herald

Erica Jurecki loads her SUV with reusable grocery bags in Telluride.