Boulder's bag fee

Fee on a disposable grocery bag: 10 cents

Reduction in disposable bag use since July: 68 percent

Estimated annual disposable bag use in Boulder: 33 million

Percent that come from grocery stores: 60 percent-70 percent

Fees collected by the city: $136,753 in first six months

Amount spent on reusable bags for low-income residents: $150,000

Amount spent on education and advertising: $80,000

Source: City of Boulder

Six months after Boulder instituted a 10-cent fee on disposable grocery bags, use of plastic and paper bags has fallen 68 percent, city officials said.

That figure is based on a comparison of estimated bag use before the fee was implemented in July and the number of bags paid for by shoppers in the last six months, said Jamie Harkins, business sustainability specialist for the city.

Boulder officials had estimated bag use would decline about 50 percent.

Washington, D.C., saw a decrease in bag use of more than 75 percent after implementing a similar fee on both paper and plastic, but Harkins thought Boulder might have less room for improvement since many shoppers here already brought their own bags.

"I think we just underestimated the motivation of a fee," Harkins said. "It's psychologically really interesting. We've had bag credits for years, and it didn't have the same effect.

"It just seems to be more motivating than we thought."

Boulder instituted the fee in response to calls from student activists to ban plastic bags and as part of an ongoing effort to divert 85 percent of trash going to landfills.

The fee applies to all paper and plastic bags at grocery stores, convenience stores and big-box retailers such as Target. It doesn't apply to bags for in-store use with produce and meat, or to newspaper and pharmacy bags.

Retailers get to keep 4 cents to cover the cost of implementation, while the city keeps 6 cents.

Boulder had collected $136,753 in bag fees as of the end of 2013. That money is going to pay back $150,000 in bags for low-income residents and $80,000 for an education campaign and advertising related to the implementation of the fee.

'Never about making money'

Harkins said it's "great news" that the city is getting less money than anticipated, even though that means it will take longer to pay back the up-front costs.

"This was never about making money," she said. "It was about changing behavior. The less money we receive, the better."

Edee Knight, sustainability manager at Alfalfa's Market, said paper bag use there is down 39 percent and sales of cloth bags are up 42 percent.

A spokeswoman for King Soopers declined to discuss the impact of the fee at that grocery chain. Many large retailers consider bag-use data proprietary because competitors could use it to extrapolate information about sales.

Dan Matsch, who manages the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials for Eco-Cycle, said plastic bags dropped off for recycling there dropped 10 percent in 2013 compared to 2012.

That decrease was surprising.

"I didn't expect it to drop a whole lot," he said. "I know a lot of bags we get are not the bags you get when you're checking out."

'I don't want to be seen buying a bag'

An informal survey of shoppers at King Soopers at 30th Street and Arapahoe Avenue on Friday afternoon found about half had reusable bags and, of the other half, many carried out armfuls of groceries with no bags.

University of Colorado student Kevin Emory pushed a grocery cart full of loose items to his car Friday.

"I forgot my bags in the car," he said. "I defintely don't want to pay the fee. It's good, though, that they're charging people."

Anjula Adhikari, a manicurist picking up a few cups of yogurt, also went bag-free.

When she's in other cities, she said, she'll still use plastic bags, but in Boulder she tries to remember her bags from home. But for just a few items, she opts to carry them out.

Kelsey Burd, a retail clerk, had her groceries in two canvas bags, but she's done that for years.

"I pretty much always bring them," she said. "That was my mom's habit."

Mary Ann Anderson, though, had her groceries in two plastic bags.

"I obviously haven't changed my habits," she said a little sheepishly. "I bring my bags about 50 percent of the time."

Harkins said the city plans to do an in-depth analysis of the program once it's been in place for a year.

"It's becoming more of a social norming thing," she said. "'I don't want to be seen buying a bag.' That's great that it's becoming a community value."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355, meltzere@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/meltzere.