Colorado’s plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement is inconsistent

Listen Now
4min 05sec
Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo File
FILE – This June 15, 2017, file photo shows bagged purchases from the Kroger grocery store in Flowood, Miss. The nation’s largest grocery chain will phase out the use of plastic bags in its stores by 2025.

Colorado’s statewide plastic bag ban takes effect this year, but city and municipal governments are still divided on how to enforce it. 

The language of the law passed in 2021 required large businesses that operate in Colorado to stop providing single-use plastic carryout bags by January 1, 2024. Inventory purchased before 2024 can still be provided to customers by June 1, 2024. After that time, businesses may continue providing recycled paper carryout bags at a 10 cent fee. 

Cities and counties are entirely responsible for enforcing the law, and local governments were given the entirety of 2023 to prepare for the full plastic ban. During 2023, businesses were allowed to continue offering plastic bags if they charged a 10 cent fee per bag. 

Local governments are entitled to 60 percent of the fees collected for plastic and paper carryout bags. Businesses are allowed to keep the remainder. 

Because state lawmakers laid the responsibility of enforcing the plastic bag ban at the feet of local governments, the language of the law doesn’t outline how governments should implement it. That’s led to a wide array of approaches.

Denver introduced its own plastic bag fee in 2021, giving it a headstart on preparing for the statewide ban. The 10 cent bag fee the county introduced prior to the new ban’s passage meant Denver had relatively few changes to make.

“We have a robust infrastructure in place and the Office of Climate Action Sustainability and Resiliency has been enforcing the administration of that disposable bag fee,” said Blake Adams, who manages the city’s Zero Waste and Circular Economy program. 

While Denver has had the 10 cent fee since 2021, businesses in city limits weren’t required to get rid of plastic bags entirely until the statewide ban took effect. Adams said the city is preparing for the full plastic bag ban to take effect and that it has staff that will visit large businesses to ensure compliance. Businesses that aren’t complying with either the fee mandate or the plastic bag ban may be subject to warnings or fines.

Other cities, such as Grand Junction, are taking a more passive approach to the statewide ban. 

Tamra Allen, the community development director for Grand Junction, said officials are focused on providing information and educational resources to businesses, but won’t be sending city employees to verify compliance. Allen said the city is confident businesses will follow the new rules without government interference. 

“We actually believe we are actually seeing good compliance to the law, but we are certainly not doing any audits per se, or sending teams out to secret shop,” Allen said. 

One incentive for ensuring compliance could be the portion of the 10 cent per bag remittance fees businesses are required to pay their local governments. 

Adams said Denver has collected about $5 million in remittance fees since it introduced the bag fee in 2021. Grand Junction collected about $174,000 last year. Pueblo said it doesn’t plan to collect remittance fees until April 2024, at which point businesses will pay a lump sum of what they’ve collected since the start of 2023. 

Adams noted the remittance fees have gotten lower year after year, as shoppers have adapted to the plastic bag charge. He expects that to continue when single-use plastic bags disappear from major retailers.  

“We actually expect with this ban now in place that those remittance fees will drastically decrease over time, which is really the idea of this incentive or this policy — is to not burden customers with additional costs for checkout, but incentivize more sustainable behavior by bringing your own reusable bag,” Adams said. 

The state law declares that “small stores” that operate solely in Colorado and have fewer than three locations do not have to abide by the plastic bag ban. However, they must continue to charge 10 cents per single-use bag.

Local governments have the option to enact stricter rules for their individual communities starting this July.