Denver, CO

Shoppers not paying for bags at self-checkouts, official says

David Heitz

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By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) People at self-checkouts at grocery stores and big box retailers aren’t being honest about the number of plastic bags they use, according to a representative of the City and County of Denver’s Climate, Action, Sustainability and Resiliency office.

Executive Director Grace Rink told the City Council Wednesday that self-checkouts are “definitely a problem” when it comes to people paying for plastic bags. The city enacted a law last year charging people 10 cents each for the bags. The idea is to discourage the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of reusable bags.

Of more than 1,400 retailers, only 125 have not paid Denver the tax during the first year, according to Rink. The city has collected more than $2.4 million. Six cents of the 10 cents per bag goes to the City and County of Denver. The retailer keeps the other four cents. The law exempts people using food assistance benefits.

40 million bags sold

Councilmember Kevin Flynn did the math and noted Denver residents bought about 40 million bags in the past year. He wondered if that indicated reduced bag use.

Rink said it’s difficult to tell because the city did not keep data on bags used prior to the ordinance being enacted last year. She said the self-checkout is another wild card.

Some people bring old plastic bags and reuse them. That only will be allowed through May 2024. Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, bags purchased at the store will be paper.

Rink said she has observed people in the self-checkout lanes. She said she probably has seen five people be honest at self-checkouts about the number of bags they use.

Clerks don’t enforce tax

Most of the self-checkout lanes are monitored by young people who work for the retailers, Rink said. However, there does not appear to be much interest in having the clerks enforce the tax, she said.

The council took up the issue of the bags again at Monday's City Council meeting. They approved the first reading of the ordinance.The city is refining its plastic bags ordinance to align with the state’s.

While local laws can be stricter than state ones, they may not be less strict, Rink said. The state law includes marijuana dispensaries. Denver’s did not.

Flynn: How is bag tax being used?

Rink said the City and County of Denver will begin to ask retailers to demonstrate how they spend their four cents per bag. The money is supposed to be used for administrative or overhead costs related to paying the tax or for purchasing reusable bags to be given to customers.

Flynn asked Rink to come back with a presentation on how the city is using the money.

The full City Council also still must vote on changes that bring Denver’s plastic bag law into compliance with the state’s.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

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