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A brief conversation with a Cortez Walmart cashier last summer left Laura Herrick discouraged. She had seen plastic grocery bags littered on the sides of roads throughout Cortez, and as she checked out, she asked how many plastic bags the store distributes to customers. The cashier estimated each employee used roughly 300 in one eight-hour shift.
Herrick, an educator who spent 35 years working in Cortez schools, did some quick math: With three large stores in town (Walmart, Safeway, and City Market) and people coming from all over the Four Corners area to buy goods, that meant upward of 30,000 single-use plastic bags could be given out in any day. In a single year, that number could approach 11 million. Those plastic bags pile up in landfills, pollute waterways, and wreak other environmental havoc, leading some states—which will soon include Colorado—to eliminate single-use plastic bags altogether.
“I walked away and thought: Oh, I hate those things,” Herrick says. As she kept walking, though, an idea blossomed: “It’s hard to tackle environmental projects because they’re such big issues. But I thought I could tackle maybe just the single-use plastic bag piece.”
She made a multi-pronged plan. Herrick would purchase thousands of reusable bags and distribute them to the community around Earth Day. However, she also thought broader education would be necessary, especially because the Colorado legislature’s ban on single-use plastic bags was slated to go into effect at most large retailers in 2024. To prepare Cortez residents for that looming change, she turned to a community she knew: the schools.
Herrick envisioned an essay prompt about the impact of plastic bags for 4th to 8th graders and a poster contest on the same theme for high schoolers. The winning essay and poster could be used to create an educational flier to distribute along with reusable bags to the community. She even came up with a name for the initiative: “SUP 2 Sack”—a community-wide effort to turn single-use-plastics into multi-use sacks.
In order to purchase multi-use bags and award a prize to the poster and essay winners, Herrick needed support. LOR had just started working with Cortez, but Herrick had already heard about its support for the Uplift Apprenticeship Program’s beverage cart. She thought perhaps LOR could help her, so she reached out to Cortez community officer Nicci Crowley to see if the “Sup 2 Sack” initiative would be a fit.
“One of the things that really grabbed my attention was Laura’s desire to connect with all our community. By having the winning paragraph and poster translated into Spanish, Navajo, and Ute, she was essentially meeting people where they are at—which aligns with our goals at LOR,” Crowley says. “Plus, having an individual take this on and address a complex issue is the kind of initiative we’re excited to support.”
With a grant from LOR, Herrick was able to purchase 5,000 multi-use bags and award $200 to contest winners. She distributed about 2,500 sacks and fliers in early April, focusing on schools, retailers, and community organizations like the Southwest Youth Coalition, the Montezuma Food Coalition, and the Good Samaritan Center. The remaining 2,500 bags were distributed on Earth Day at grocery stores and to organizations working with low-income families.
Herrick wanted to ensure those efforts didn’t end when the sun set on Earth Day: She’s since worked closely with the managers at Walmart, Safeway, and City Market, each of whom has agreed to donate several hundred more reusable bags to the cause. Moreover, she’s making inroads with the city, where she has presented at meetings about the impending ban on single-use plastic bags and ways the community can prepare ahead of what may feel like an abrupt shift.
While she may not solve the whole problem (11 million is a big number, after all), Herrick is hopeful Cortez will cut its reliance on single-use plastic bags by half by the time the new law goes into effect. And by getting the whole community involved, she’s showing that a one small idea can spark change at a large scale.
If you'd like to help Cortez reduce single-use plastics, Herrick recommends using reusable sacks, avoiding products packaged with single-use plastics, and educating yourself about HB21-1162, the legislation banning single use plastic bags in Colorado.Learn About HB21-1162
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Nicci prides herself on being a connector of people and ideas—a trait that’s central to her work as the LOR Foundation’s community officer in Cortez, Colorado. She listens to community members to understand the challenges they collectively face and then… Meet Nicci