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Colorado cities are using single-use plastic bag fees to help benefit small businesses

Denver and Englewood have both launched programs to help businesses adapt to environmental restrictions. Both programs are funded by plastic bag fees.
Posted at 7:45 PM, Feb 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 17:30:34-05

DENVER — Inside MyKings Ice Cream, the owner and two environmental designers are opening up boxes and boxes of supplies.

"It's kind of like Christmas all over again," said Amber Barbella, the owner of Diversion Designers, a locally-based waste consulting company, as she opened up a box of new serviceware for the ice cream shop.

Instead of a holiday, it's more like spring cleaning for the shop's owner Leday Grant. She'll be moving all of her one-time use items like paper ice cream cups and plastic spoons into storage, and replacing them with something reusable.

Customers will soon get their ice cream in sundae dishes with real silverware. Even popcorn bags have been swapped out for reusable popcorn buckets. All of it can be washed and used over and over again.

"You think about seeing 10 customers a day, that's 10 cups. If they want to leave with it, that's 10 lids and also the spoons," said Grant, "It's at least a $10,000 saving just by having the reusable products. That's going to make a tremendous change."

Every dollar counts for small business owners. The cost of all of the brand new reusable serviceware to Grant? Not a single penny.

"We knew we were going to have fees coming in from the bag free program and we can reinvest those fees in the community," said Becky Goyton with Denver's Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency.

Since 2021, the City of Denver has collected $5 million in fees from the $.10 everyone pays for bags at the store. Over the years, the money has funded over 58,000 reusable bags donated to community organizations and people living in Denver.

The city said, other allowable uses for these fees include program administration, education, and other programs that help reduce single-use waste.

Now, about $100,000 is available for small businesses who want to get rid of their one-time use serviceware and upgrade to something more sustainable.

"Every business will get a one-on-one consultation before we develop a purchasing plan," said Barbella. Diversion Designers has teamed up with the City of Denver on the initiative.

The businesses will receive up to $600 to buy reusable to match their specific vibe. The designers work with the business owner to make sure the choices fit the resturants' needs and aesthetic to help ensure it's a long-term commitment.

Applicants need to have onsite dining to be able to apply. Priority is given to women and/or minority-owned businesses.

"Knowing that your 10 cents is going toward a small business, a portion of it is going to a small business, helps bring you in again," said Grant.

Click here to apply for the pilot program. There are 35 total spots.

"A little bit goes along way"

Just south, in Englewood, small businesses are also getting a boost from the bag ban.

"Our whole concept was built on local food sustainability and minimizing impact on the environment," said George Gastis of Grow + Gather.

From their inception, they've used more eco-friendly options for their to-go containers like recyclable plastic or compostable boxes.

Restaurants across the state are now required to follow suit with a styrofoam ban in effect. Establishments can use up whatever stock they have left first.

The City of Englewood has collected about $100,000 in bag fees. They are using $18,000 to reimburse restaurants for their sustainable container choices and to help a few others make the transition.

Four businesses, including Grow + Gather, who were already using more sustainable to-go containers were given a reimbursement of $500 as "Waste Reduction Leaders." Two additional businesses, one from Englewood and one from Sheridan, were given the reimbursement to help cover the cost of transitioning away from using styrofoam.

"The biggest benefit of the grant is the obvious, that they have to do it anyway. So then they can utilize some city funding to help them with the transition," said Melissa Englund, the Sustainability Coordinator for Englewood & Sheridan. "I would say at a bigger scale, a benefit of getting rid of polystyrene products is, it's really bad for the environment. There's no way to actually recycled polystyrene. So it just builds up. It's also really bad for human health, especially if it's in contact with heat."

It's an effort to make things a bit easier on small businesses that are hoping to take care of their customers and the environment.

"A little bit goes a long way. I think this is just probably the beginning of what's going to become a little higher criteria for how we run our businesses," said Gastis.

"This is one step to make Colorado a more green place for everyone," said Grant.

The current application process for Englewood's pilot program is closed but they say they do plan to open up more spots later this year. The application can be found by clicking here.

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