The City of Santa Fe has sunk thousands of taxpayer dollars into its effort to educate citizens about the upcoming ban on plastic bags.
But the ban is approaching fast—Feb. 27—and citizens and businesses still have questions about its enforcement.
Katherine Mortimer is the city employee who manages the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, a citizen-led group of volunteers that advises City Council on sustainability issues.
"We've gotten a number of questions so far," she says.
She says those questions have included:
Can a retail establishment distribute plastic bags labeled bio-degradable? (No.)
Where does the ten-cent charge on paper bags imposed by the ban go? (The ten cents is kept by the retailer.)
Can a retail establishment charge more than ten cents for paper bags? (Yes. Ten cents is the minimum charge.)
Artists may not use the banned bags to wrap artwork, she adds.
Mortimer says the city has focused on first reaching out to businesses about the ordinance. The commission, she says, is setting up breakfast meetings with business leaders and it will later set up tables at retail establishments.
"We're starting with businesses because of the lead time that they have," she says.
The city will then turn its attention to educating citizens about six weeks before the ban, she says, namely because people might forget if outreach begins too early.
Alex Giorgio, loading his plastic bags into his vehicle from a shopping trip at Smith's on Cerrillos, agrees. "If they do it too far upfront then everybody forgets about it."
Giorgio, a Santa Fe resident, didn't know about the ban until a reporter informed him about it. (He doesn't read a newspaper and doesn't have TV, but he generally gets his news from the radio.) He supports the idea. Asked if he thinks the city should be educating citizens about it, he responds, "I would think if they want to help decrease all the agitation they're probably going to experience when people shop and all of the sudden, 'No you can't do that.'"
"So I would think so," he adds. "I'm surprised because I think the stores themselves would be doing some more promotions on that."
A sign in Smith's parking lot asks: "Are your reusable bags still in the car?" It notes: "One reusable bag replaces hundreds of disposable bags in a lifetime."
Andrea Bozman loaded her reusable bags into her car after a shopping trip at Smith's. A strong supporter of the ban—"I think it's great," she says, citing the litter and harm to animals from plastic bags. Bozman says she been using her tote bags for years now.
"I think buying a reusable bag for 99 cents is not that big of a deal," she says. "I think it's going to be really much more of a smooth transition for people than they think—as long as stores have the availability of reusable bags and supplies when it first starts."
The city already passes out reusable bags as promotion for various programs such as the bus system and water conservation. Officials have said they will distribute more bags for the plastic rule change, but a $10,000 city contract with the Santa Fe-based firm HK Advertising is only for developing a "prelminary website," media strategy, logo and tagline to promote the ban.
The ordinance, passed by a 7-1 city council vote in August, bans the distribution of single-use plastic carry-out bags by retailers and establishes a minimum 10-cent fee for paper grocery bags imposed by establishments (shoppers purchasing items with food stamps are not allowed to be charged for the paper bags, per the ordinance). Rules apply to plastic bags 2.25 mil and thinner: Namely, the bags used in grocers. Thicker plastic bags often used by clothing retailers will be allowed. Restaurants aren't affected by the ban.
The ordinance does not prohibit the use the plastic bags by citizens—just distribution of them in the city. Smaller bags for produce and meat are still allowed.
Backers say the effort is meant to help reduce the use of all disposable bags.
"Most plastic carry-out bags do not biodegrade and instead persist in the environment hundreds of years, slowly breaking down through abrasion, tearing and photo degradation into toxic plastic bits that contaminate soil and water while entering the food web when animals inadvertently ingest these materials," reads the ordinance. "It is the city's desire to conserve resources, reduce waster, litter, pollution and protect the public health and welfare."
The ordinance includes penalties for retailers who break the rules: An initial written warning would be followed by a maximum $100 fine for each day of the ongoing violation.