The city has begun an effort to install reusable bag banks around Aspen so that the community is better equipped for on-the-go grocery shopping.
A so-called “bag bank” is a metal basket that holds reusable bags, so passersby can deposit unwanted reusable bags and shoppers in need can pick one up.
The environmental health department has stocked the banks with 10 to 15 reusable bags and the department will refill the baskets periodically, said city environmental health specialist Ashley Cantrell.
Banks are currently located at City Hall, the Aspen Recreation Center and Jean Robert’s Gym. The Grog Shop and Aspen Wine and Spirits, both of which are located next to a grocery store, have also agreed to be bag bank sites. The city is also trying to get an additional bag bank at the library.
The local City Market has passed on having a bag bank in the store, for liability purposes, said grocery store spokesperson Kelli McGannon. For more than three years, the grocery store has had bins that collect plastic bags to be recycled at all the City Market locations. The bins have been removed from the Aspen and Carbondale stores since the ban has been put in place, McGannon said.
“This is out of caution for the safety of our customers,” McGannon said. “If they forget a bag and use one that has been left to be recycled, it could be a potential for food safety concerns.”
Tom Clark Jr., owner of Clark’s Market, expressed similar thoughts about encouraging people to share bags in the store.
“You have to be careful with things like that,” Clark said. “You don’t know how clean bags are.”
The idea behind the bag bank is that people would take the bag home and wash it before they head to the grocery store, Cantrell said. Paper and plastic bags are not allowed in the bag banks, she added.
“The banks are not a receptacle for just any bags that you want to go get rid of,” Cantrell said.
The banks are intended for locals who have a surplus of reusable bags or for those who find themselves in need of one, she said.
The city has also given about 45 reusable bags to each grocery store in case disgruntled customers refuse to purchase paper or reusable bags.
“We don’t want the grocers to have the burden of dealing with angry customers,” Cantrell said.
Both grocery stores say that it has been a smooth transition into banning plastic bags.
On May 1, a law went into effect that banned plastic bags from grocery stores within city limits. Aspen City Council passed the law in September in an effort to cut down on waste associated with single-use plastic bags, while encouraging shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to tote groceries home. The law also placed a 20-cent fee on paper bags.
In the first month, 80 to 90 percent of shoppers have been bringing their own bags to the store and about 10,000 paper bags have been sold between both grocers, which is a lower number than the stores anticipated, Cantrell said.
The city originally budgeted $59,940 for public outreach on the issue, but to date the total cost for the program including temporary staff help, reusable bags and marketing has been $18,200.
That’s largely due to the fact that the department thought that it would cost $3 to $4 per reusable bag, when the actual cost was $2 per bag. Also, the city had unanticipated marketing help from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA), which has been spreading the word to guests and hotels, Cantrell said.
With much of the work behind it, the department expects to spend only about $2,000 to $3,000 more this year toward the bag effort, and the savings will likely go back to the city’s general budget, Cantrell said.
With locals more or less on board, the department is waiting to see how tourists will deal with the bag ban during the summer season.
The city has reached out to hotels and car-rental companies, suggesting that they have reusable bags ready for tourists before they arrive. Other tourist destinations like Hawaii, which imposed a plastic bag ban without resistance from tourists, are also a positive indicator that the transition should be smooth, Cantrell said. Still, most local hotels aren’t actively preparing as much as they probably should be, she said.
“They haven’t really picked up on it much,” Cantrell said with a sigh. “In the next month or two we’ll see how it goes.”