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Lawmakers deal with competing legislation

By Alex Burness

The Denver Post

Colorado lawmakers have a decision to make: Ban single-use plastic bags and foam takeout containers from many restaurants and retailers, or keep the plastics as an option but have food service packaging distributors pay fees to boost state recycling efforts by $75 million in five years. Or do both at the same time.

The first bill is backed by environmentalists and is a longstanding priority for Democrats. The competition, introduced one week later, comes from the American Chemistry Council, which represents DuPont, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, 3M and other large producers of plastic products.

The proposals present alternate courses for Colorado, which has a recycling rate twice as bad as the national average. Plastic regulation is a climate issue, as these products pollute air, soil and water sources, and emit greenhouse gases as they idle in landfills.

These dueling bills are also an example of the impact that lobbyists have in the statehouse.

“It is the plastic industry’s attempt to draw people away from the ‘reduce’ aspect of pollution prevention,” said Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat and a lead sponsor of the ban bill. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, look over here.’ That’s all it is. Does it actually want to solve a problem? No, because their business is selling plastic, and our intention is reducing plastic going into landfills and into our bodies.”

But Valdez’s co-sponsor, Sen. Julie Gonzales, thinks that view is shortsighted. Although she also believes that the alternative bill amounts to an interference campaign, she said the legislature should take the industry up on putting more money into the plastics problem — even if plastics recycling is a fraught topic, considering China recently stopped taking tons of U.S. plastics to be recycled.

“I think it’s ridiculous that there are policymakers in this building who think that we shouldn’t be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” the Denver Democrat said. “They’re both good bills. They both should pass and be signed into law.”

“Maybe I was being naive”

The Democratic majority of the legislature seems to be in general agreement about the harmful nature of products such as singleuse plastic bags and polystyrene food containers. These products are difficult and costly to recycle, and the measure to ban the products follows a similar but stalled effort in 2020.

Plastics industry representatives argue bans are ineffective because whatever is prohibited often is replaced by something equally expensive or difficult to recycle.

“So if you focus in on one material type, polystyrene,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council, “that doesn’t really do anything in our view to address this broader issue of trying to improve the overall recycling infrastructure.”

“That’s a total cop-out,” Eco-Cycle Executive Director and former Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones countered. She leads the largest nonprofit recycler in the state and said the group’s top priority is to “move to reusables.”

“Second is to move to reusable or recyclable containers. Singleuse, disposable plastics are neither,” she said. Shestek is puzzled by environmental groups’ opposition to the industry bill because, he said, people such as Jones should welcome a cash infusion for a recycling system that all involved see as underperforming.

That’s the angle from which Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson is trying to sell his colleagues.

Priola was recruited by the American Chemistry Council to sponsor this bill and has teamed up with two House Democrats on it.

“We had a meeting, and I told them that I think if industry steps up and funds robust recycling infrastructure, I don’t see how environmentalists can oppose that,” he said. “Maybe I was being naive.”

Environmentalists say the plastics industry proposal is premature because the state health department soon will wrap a report that was meant to inform future recycling policy.

“I don’t hear (environmentalists) saying on the other bill that we need to wait for the report,” Priola said. “So I’m just a little confused. For once industry is willing to step up … and they’re saying we need to wait?”

“Welcome to the fight”

Shestek rejects Valdez’s suggestion that his side has ulterior motives, saying they’re at the table because they want to be there — not to distract policymakers or thwart any stricter recommended policies emerging from the expected state report.

But one of the industry’s allies in this fight, Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada, doesn’t buy that.

“I do understand that the folks who originally brought this concept is a company that is inherently anti-environment, according to most people,” said Titone, who is a sponsor in the House and a trained geochemist. She also said she supports the ban bill.

She described the industry’s fee proposal as “very generous,” a “gift horse” and said the legislature should run with it, even if it’s “a bit of a bait for people to not vote on the other bill.”

Titone also said she would propose a number of amendments to the bill in the House, aimed at bringing environmentalists on board. But it has to get to the House first.

Both bills aren’t far along in the process. The industry bill awaits a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee — originally scheduled for Monday but pushed back as Priola buys time to work on his colleagues, and the committee leader said she isn’t sure whether the bill will advance.

In a separate committee, the ban bill had a provision stripped that would have provided local governments the chance to ban or restrict certain packaging materials — a privilege currently preempted by state law. (Fort Collins is set to vote Tuesday on a plastic bag ban, which many believe would violate that law if it passes.) “To industry, who is finally waking up: Welcome to the fight,” Gonzales said. “It’s about time. And if you end up putting your money where your mouth is, that’s a start. We, as policymakers, are also going to continue to bring forward our own legislation.”

Alex Burness: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @alex_burness

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