Reusable Bag Banks Popping Up in Aspen

An interesting experiment is happening in Aspen, Colorado. Reusable bag banks are being setup throughout the city. Aspen voted a bag ban into law back in September and it took effect on May 1 of this year. The ban outlaws disposable plastic shopping bags and levies a 20 cent fee on paper bags. One month into the ban and it is estimated that 80-90 percent of shoppers are bringing their own reusable bags when they head out to the store. The concept of the bag bank is similar to the ‘take a penny, leave a penny’ trays you may see at a convenience store counter. The bag banks are metal baskets in which residents can deposit their extra reusable grocery bags for others who may need a bag to take as needed. Only reusable bags are to be placed in the basket  – plastic and paper bags are not allowed. It is also the responsibility of the recipient of the bags to clean them before loading them up with goods. The Environmental Health Department (EHD) is managing the banks and has stocked each bank with 10 to 15 reusable bags to start. The EHD will monitor the banks and refill the baskets periodically to ensure bags are available for those who need them.

Shoppers Need to Be Careful About Sharing Reusable Bags

Currently banks are located at City Hall, the Aspen Recreation Center and Jean Robert’s Gym. The Grog Shop and Aspen Wine and Spirits have both agreed to be bank locations and there is work underway to get a bank setup at the local library. Two grocery stores have passed on becoming bank locations, and with good reason. For many years City Market stores have had bins to collect disposable plastic bags to recycle. Since the implementation of the ban City Market has removed the recycling bins from their Aspen and Carbondale stores, which makes sense since no one should have any more plastic bags to recycle. To avoid confusion City Market does not want to add bag banks - the concern is that shoppers may mistakenly deposit stray plastic bags in the bag banks thinking they are tossing the bags in a recycling bin. To further complicate matters if a fellow shopper in need of a reusable bag grabs the wrongly placed plastic bag thinking it is reusable that can cause a whole mess of confusion. The ban is only a month old so it is too soon to place bag banks where recycling bins used to be. If shoppers from out of town swing by to pick up some groceries they may not be familiar with the bag ban or bank so that is a recipe for disaster. “This is out of caution for the safety of our customers,” said Kelli McGannon of City Market. “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 in Aspen does not want to encourage his shoppers to share reusable grocery bags, at least not in his store. It can be tempting for shoppers who maybe forgot their bags or get to the checkout and realize they are short a bag or two to run to the bank and pick some bags up. Since bags in the bank were more than likely used prior to being placed in the bank it is not a good idea to use these bags without first washing them. “You have to be careful with things like that,” Clark said. “You don’t know how clean bags are.” There is no way to know what the bag’s previous owner used it for before they dropped it off, and you would think that the previous owner would have washed the bag, especially if they used it to carry a leaky milk jug or a drippy package of meat before depositing it in the bank, but there is just no way of knowing. When you do not know you have to assume the bag was not washed. Placing the baskets in a grocery store can encourage immediate use and can lead to unsanitary bags being used. Shoppers who take advantage of this service are asked to bring the bags home and wash them before putting them to use to avoid the spread of bacteria.

Locations that are not grocery stores are ideal for this program - this avoids the conceivable health hazard of shoppers using a possibly dirty bag to carry their groceries home. Shoppers need to seek out the bag banks when they are placed at City Hall or a gym or a library or some other non-retail location. Seeking the reusable bag banks out makes it more likely that people will take the bags home and wash them before they put them to use. There are no plans at this time to place bag banks at drug stores or convenience stores in the Aspen area, but this too could pose a health concern. In Aspen’s case placing the bag banks at liquor stores could prove risky since both of the liquor stores that will have banks are located next door to grocery stores. The location of the bag banks may prove to be a major consideration and contribute to the success or failure of this program.

A Whole New Level of Community Support

The intent of the bag bank program was to benefit both community members who have a surplus of reusable bags and people who need an extra bag. It was imagined to help people who may just need another bag, but this effort also lends a helping hand to neighbors who due to financial hardships may not be able to afford to purchase brand new reusable shopping bags. This offers a whole new level of community support and usefulness. If the bag banks were to work this aspect could prove to be a very valuable trait. Many bans in place across the country that charge a fee for paper bags offer exceptions to low income individuals and allow them to use paper bags at no cost. With a vibrant bag bank it would be possible to maybe spread the reusable shopping bag wealth and people who are exempt from paying any fees may be able to pick up some reusable bags from the bank and put them to good use. The bag bank could prove to be a game changer. By supplying people with reusable bags at no cost more people will be able to carry their groceries home in reusable bags so that means there will be fewer paper bags put into circulation and ultimately this is better for the community and the environment.

This whole idea is interesting and has the potential to be a very useful and handy program. It is important that people who take advantage of the bag bank take caution and clean their new reusable grocery bags from the bank prior to using them. All it takes is one slip up and people can become ill. Health and well-being is something that should always be taken seriously and the simple act of washing all reusable bags before bringing them to the store is all it takes to keep people safe and in good health. Some people may depend on the bag bank to get reusable grocery bags so an error by one person who doesn’t think to wash a bag from the bank could end up spelling the end of the program and for people who depend on the bank this could lead to financial hardship if they cannot afford new reusable bags as needed.

Odds and Ends for Aspen’s Bag Ban

Aside from the reusable bag bank the last issue of concern for Aspen is how tourists will interact with the ban. The city has been working with local hotels and car rental companies to make sure tourists are aware and prepared for the plastic bag ban. It can be irritating to show up to a new city, head to the store to pick up a couple things and realize you need to carry your purchase home sans shopping bag. The bag bank is not designed to help tourists and since visitors may not have easy access to laundry facilities the bank is not the best fit. The city has suggested to the local tourism industry that they supply their out of town customers with reusable bags. This is a stellar marketing opportunity. If businesses that work with tourists were to imprint their logo on reusable bags and hand them out they could see some big returns. Tourists will probably need a reusable bag while visiting the city and filling this need will most certainly be appreciated. This move is enough to instill loyalty between the visitors and the hotel or car rental agency, and loyalty equals repeat business. Since reusable bags fold up and have low profiles tourists can easy pack them into their luggage and bring them home. Once home the reusable bags will still be useful and each time they are used to tote items home from the store or back and forth to work or the gym they will advertise for the business that gave them the bag.

Overall the people of Aspen are taking to the plastic bag ban very well. Since the bag bank is so new it is anyone’s guess how it will work out. The bank setup is an interesting wild card, but it is showing promise. As long as people are careful and aware the bag bank could prove to be a valuable program. Not only will Aspen possibly serve as a model to other cities looking to ban plastic bags, but they now may also serve as a model to cities and municipalities with bans looking to start their own reusable bag banks.

Read more about Aspen’s reusable bag banks at http://www.aspendailynews.com/section/home/153444.

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