Eighth graders

Amara Olsen, Tal Sheleg and Indigo Olsen, eighth graders at Lake County High School, are advocating for the City of Leadville to adopt a plastic bag fee.

Three eighth grade students at Lake County High School are petitioning the City of Leadville to implement a plastic bag fee at local stores like Safeway and Family Dollar.

Amara Olsen, Tal Sheleg and Indigo Olsen presented their plan to City Council at its April 6 meeting, proposing a 10 to 25-cent fee on carryout plastic bags. The revenue from the tax, they said, would contribute to recycling programs in Lake County, and whatever is left would go back to businesses that have adopted the tax.

“We’re really passionate about this issue,” said Sheleg. “It wouldn’t just be the right thing to do for our environment, it would also help our community.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags each year, and only about one percent of those bags are returned for recycling. The rest end up in landfills throughout the country, where it takes one plastic bag more than 500 years to degrade.

There are currently 13 counties in Colorado with plastic bag fees in place. In nearby Aspen, plastic bags were banned in grocery stores in 2012 and replaced with paper bags that can be used for a 20-cent fee. A plastic bag ban will start in Breckenridge this September.

“At first, we wanted this to be about plastic awareness in general,” said Sheleg. “But then we realized what a threat plastic bags were to our environment and we decided to focus on that.”

A few summers ago, Sheleg and her family visited India where she was moved by the lack of plastic used in the country. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi has introduced several plans to phase out single-use plastic bags since taking office in 2015.

When Sheleg returned to Leadville, she spoke with City Council, and then partnered with Amara and Indigo Olsen to work on a plastic bag fee in Lake County. Through the Environmental Science and Climate Institute (ESCI) program at Lake County High School (LCHS), the students developed a plan to introduce the fee.

ESCI is a year-long program that came to LCHS last June. It is geared toward eighth grade and high school students who are interested in climate and environment issues. After a series of learning sessions last summer, students involved in the program identified a project they would work on throughout the 2020-2021 school year.

After their presentation in April, Sheleg said City Council told them to do their homework and come back with a timeline. She added that councilmembers like Dana Greene were supportive after the fact in offering information.

Since the meeting, the three students have been speaking with surrounding communities where plastic bag fees are in place and surveying the public at events like Cloud City Farm’s Friday market. They plan to speak with Safeway and Family Dollar as well and return to City Council some time toward the end of May.

According Sheleg, the students are also working on starting a club at LCHS to raise awareness around plastic use.

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