The Good, the Bag and the Ugly

Plastic bag ban to take effect in February

To the uninitiated, the desert exists in the imagination like something from a dream: dust and sky and stars and cactus and faceless cowboys and campfires, and—beyond that—the void of a place never before seen. Those who live in or visit this dry, bright place know well its dust and sky and stars and cholla and chamisa and rabbits and desert birds and coyotes. But among the beautiful vastness that is northern New Mexico, there is also a more disturbing sight: the gnarled and shredded plastic that litters and floats through our landscape like tumbleweeds, like small toxic ghosts.

"The litter problem resulting from single use plastic bags is becoming increasingly difficult to manage and has costly negative implications for tourism, wildlife and aesthetics," reads a new Santa Fe city ordinance adopted by a 7-1 City Council vote last month.

So beginning in late February, those familiar plastic bags—the ones that clog drains, cling to trees and strangle cholla like abiotic octopuses—are done for. Despite mixed feelings among city residents about the logistics of the local ban, it's been set in motion. As Santa Fe prepares for the ban, questions remain about how the city will educate the public; how businesses will be affected; and how individuals will handle the change that calls for more planning and less convenience. What's Santa Fe going to do when, in five months, the sacks are sacked?

On February 27, bags 2.25 mils and thinner—the plastic carryout bags many grocery stores offer—will no longer be provided by local retailers. Paper bags, which many environmentalists say are just as bad as plastic bags, will still be permitted, albeit with a 10-cent fee for each one.  While many locals and residents of cities with bans already in place say bagging the bag is a good first step toward change in our throw-away culture, not everyone is happy with Santa Fe's ordinance.

City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who represents the middle-class District 4 on the southeast side of town, cast the only vote against the rule at its final hearing last month. But Trujillo isn't exactly opposed to banning grocery store plastic bags, which the ordinance targets. He argues instead that the ban should apply to all plastic bags, explaining that higher-end downtown stores might bypass the ban by offering thicker bags, while "the working man and the working woman" are targeted. Still, Trujillo concedes that only time will tell whether certain businesses and consumers in Santa Fe feel unfairly targeted by the ban or whether it effectively raises awareness and reduces litter. "We are not going to know the effects until it goes into effect," he says.

Santa Fe is far from the first city to implement a plastic-bag ban. Similar restrictions in cities like Austin, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; Seattle and even Los Angeles—the second largest city in the country—have generated overall positive public response.

“My perception,” Seattle resident David McDonald says, “is that it’s gone smoothly, with a few stores confused about which bags were allowed, and the public generally supportive and proactive. The city made a strong and continued educational effort to vendors and public, and it seems to have worked.”

Lisa Merrill, education and outreach coordinator for the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, says her hometown of Long Beach, Calif., has a similar ban in place. She says shoppers there seem accustomed to the change. These days, she says many people have seen the ban at work in other cities, making it no longer much of a novelty.

While Santa Fe is joining a growing list of cities to regulate single-use bags, the city holds a unique position among them: It’s landlocked.

The majority of communities to implement single-use bag bans are coastal, where a major incentive behind getting rid of the bags is the harm they do to marine life. Even after the bags biodegrade, their toxic compounds remain in the environment.

Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien, one of the ban’s primary backers there, asserts on the city’s website that “too many plastic bags end up in the Puget Sound where they do not biodegrade. Plastic bags break down into smaller and smaller pieces that remain hazardous as they are consumed by filter-feeders, shellfish, fish, turtles, marine mammals, and birds.”

“Most communities that adopted [the ban] initially are coastal communities,” says Katherine Mortimer, program manager of  the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, a citizen-led committee that vetted the ordinance. “The big selling point in those cases was plastic bags—the litter being carried to the bottom of the oceans. We don’t have that.”

Even Austin, she says, has the marine argument on its side because of its lakes and the Colorado River that runs through it. “Whereas here, it has more to do with the litter, and people saying things like, ‘We should rename plastic bags the state flower because all you see when you go out is cactus with plastic bags on them.’”

Mortimer admits that Santa Fe’s rules aren’t necessarily going to reduce the city’s carbon footprint because the ordinance will still allow paper bags, and some consumers will just switch from disposable plastic to disposable paper.

“Paper bags really aren’t that much better,” Mortimer says. “They do break down in the environment. But the greenhouse gas impact, the resource impact, is as high [as plastic bags]. So the real focus is to encourage people to use real bags, designed to be used many, many times.”

Grocery stores like Trader Joe's, La Montañita Co-op and Whole Foods Market have already seen an increase in customers bringing in their own reusable bags. None anticipate the plastic-bag ban having a significant impact on business. A manager at the Santa Fe Trader Joe's estimates that roughly 40 percent of customers use reusable bags, with only about 1 in 50 customers asking for plastic—usually for fresh meats.

In preparation for Santa Fe’s ban, Kim Kelly of Sustainable Santa Fe says the task force behind the bill researched other city ordinances and interviewed local businesses to incorporate the best concepts into Santa Fe’s version of the bill. Kelly says many businesses did not want to charge customers for paper bags; others noted they’d need to transition from plastic to paper vendors. Santa Fe’s ordinance allows each business to keep the 10-cent paper-bag fee as compensation for the extra cost of paper, while small plastic produce bags, small paper trinket bags and plastic bags thicker than 2.25 mils are exempt from the ban. (A mil is one-thousandth of an inch.)

Albertsons, which has dealt with similar bans in other areas, is more than prepared for the ban, says store Public Affairs Manager Paul Bancroft-Turner. For one, the Santa Fe Albertsons will push for customer awareness in the month leading up to the ban. And Bancroft-Turner says he’s not worried that the ban will have an effect on large businesses like the chain grocery store.

“Concerns come down to those customers who are just so used to convenience,” he says. “I’m not really too concerned when it comes to customers actually shopping at the stores.”

Plastic bags first appeared in the US in the 1950s, when disposable items began replacing their more durable counterparts. In 1955, Life magazine ran a cover story titled "Throwaway Living" about the novelty and ease of daily life resulting from the cheaper, short-lived products that were taking over stores.

Disposable diapers, Styrofoam containers and plastic bags had entered the scene. But along with the ease and affordability of disposable items came the waste they created.

By 1977, plastic bags had made their way into grocery and retail stores as an alternative to paper, and in the late ’80s, the litter created by plastic bags had become enough of a concern that a New York county passed a law banning plastic bags. The ban was overturned by chemical/plastic and bag corporations that continue to resist bag regulation through campaigns like “Bag the Ban.” By the mid ’90s, the plastic industry reported that four out of five bags in use were plastic, and some big-box stores and grocery chains began offering plastic-bag recycling centers in response to communities’ desires for waste reduction.

And sure, many argue that the flimsy plastic bags can be recycled if you just bring them back to the store.  Merrill warns that the bags customers return to barrels in the front of stores like Lowes, Target, Wal-Mart and Albertsons for recycling “are being backhauled to a distribution center.” She questions whether bags are actually recycled once they get there.

Bancroft-Turner says Albertsons ships the bags to Trex, a company that mixes plastic with recycled wood in order to make decking, fencing, windows “and other household items.” But Merrill says it’s not clear how much low-quality plastic like 2.25 mil bags is reused. Single-use plastic bags are made of a thin, low-quality film that is often contaminated by another substance inside such as food remnants, receipts or even dog waste, earning the industry classification of “dirty.” Thicker, higher-grade film like the plastic stretch wrapping around packages of water bottles is referred to as “clean.”

Recycled plastic “lumber,”  she says, is usually made out of “clean” plastic jugs or stretch-wrap that hasn’t been touched by the public. “The mill probably throws the bags away,” she says.

A 2009 EPA report estimated that about 6.1 percent of film—both the “clean” and “dirty” kinds—was recycled. It’s unclear how much of that figure is plastic bags. According to, a website that compiles data on plastic bag laws, one of that report’s leading data contributors was the American Chemistry Council, “a plastics industry group [that] has a monetary interest in promoting the production of plastic products,” or more simply stated, a conflict of interest.

Skeptics of the “single-use” bag ban argue that plastic bags are conveniently reused. “You can say ‘single-use bags,’ but we find other uses for those bags afterward,” Councilor Trujillo says, citing garbage receptacles, lunch containers, dog-waste disposal and weed removal as alternative uses for the bags.

Kelly, however, says people often forget that the first ‘R’ in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is “reduce,” which is what Santa Fe’s ordinance aims to do. While the city offers the third R—recycling at the curbside—for No. 1 and 2 plastics, as well as tin, aluminum, cardboard and glass, whether people are actually recycling is another question. The Santa Fe Environmental Services Division estimates that only about half of Santa Fe households actively recycle, though a more complete city and county waste study is due in February.

And many people aren’t doing it right. On a recent trip to the Buckman Road Recycling Center and Transfer Station (BuRRT), Merrill exhibited the various non-recyclable materials that ended up in a pile of recently unloaded recyclables—many of them are plastic bags. Conversely, she says, many recyclables end up in the landfill.

The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, which fought the ban, supports voluntary recycling. “We didn’t feel plastic bags should be singled out,” Simon Brackley, Chamber president and CEO, says. “Santa Fe has an awful recycling record...So I think, as a community, we need to do a much better job of keeping whatever we can out of the landfill. Plastic bags hardly take up any space at the landfill. So we need to look at better ways of recycling.”

It’s not just about space in the landfill, though. Merrill says that aside from the wind-blown waste that plastic bags become, they present mechanical problems at the recycling facility as well as a financial burden. The agency hires temporary workers to patrol the two premises and clean up litter, a majority of which is made of plastic bags. Together, the workers are paid $80,000 to collect wind-blown objects nine months of the year.

Merrill adds that plastic bags are the primary cause of jamming in the machines that sort recyclables. Bags that snag inside gears must be removed by hand, which takes valuable time from workers on the sort line and increases labor costs, she says. “The mechanics go in there, have to shut down the line and cut out the bags. It ends up just causing a mess; [plastic bags] end up causing more trouble than benefits.”

Though plastic bags are a pain for Santa Fe’s landfill and recycling machinery, Mortimer says  ultimately, the reason the bag ban passed is because the city’s elementary and high school students spoke up.

“I think the shift came because a request came from the youth at different levels of our community. It wasn’t coming from the top down, but the bottom up,” she says. Earlier efforts to do something about plastic bags, like a 2008 attempt to tax them, “were really benign,” she says. “There were no decisions made by anyone.” She says people thought that whatever change was to happen, it would affect them in a way they wouldn’t like.

Officials seemed to enjoy interaction with members of the Wood Gormley Go Green Club, who showed up at City Hall to raise awareness about the issue repeatedly over the last year.

“I really think plastic bags should be banned because they pollute the world,” Lucia Ortiz, a Wood Gormley Elementary School  fourth-grader said at a meeting last month just before the bill passed. Her older sister Sophia had kicked off  a campaign a year earlier when she asked officials to ban plastic bags. The Wood Gormley club was later joined by Earth Care Youth Allies for Sustainability, an afterschool program for high schoolers who also traipsed to City Hall to back the ban. While some opponents of the ban branded it as a liberal, “feel-good” scheme, Mortimer says children from a broad range of backgrounds support the ban. “The thing that we’ve found with outreach with all kinds of education information regarding sustainability [is that] it completely crosses cultural and socioeconomic boundaries,” she says.

Kim Kelly stands before No. 1 and 2 plastic containers—which, unlike plastic bags, the city of Santa Fe recycles.
Mia Rose Carbone

The city's job now is to educate businesses about the ban. "I think there's some confusion about which bags are affected and which are not. An Albertsons bag is banned, but I'm not sure about bags for carrying a takeout meal or a bag for carrying shirts from a clothing store," Brackley says. "If you buy five pounds of green chile, is a plastic bag allowed for that? Is a Walgreens bag affected?"

The short answer is that restaurants are exempt and produce bags are still permitted, but all other plastic bags thinner than 2.25 mils will be illegal. For now, the city is working on its outreach plan for preparing and educating businesses about the ban. Mortimer says reaching businesses is "a lot easier than reaching every person." It will be up to the stores to prepare their customers who are not always Santa Fe residents. So far, the Environmental Services Division has purchased 10,000 reusable bags for distribution—primarily at fire stations and community centers, where lower-income shoppers can claim them—and it plans on ordering more soon, Mortimer says.

No later than 12 months after the ban's effective date, the city plans to conduct a survey of establishments impacted by the rules.

And then there's the familiar conundrum that comes with having to remember your own reusable bags. No matter how strong shoppers' intentions to bring their own reusable bags on grocery-shopping jaunts may be, many still won't manage to get them into the store. The city of Austin put signs in its parking lots to remind customers to bring in their own bags. Officials there also paid for a print and video advertising campaign in English and Spanish in addition to giving away reusable bags.

Change is difficult, but people adapt. Even Trujillo, who would prefer a ban on all plastic bags, says the new rules are "a beginning, so it's a start of other things to come."

For her part, Mortimer says it's all about adopting new habits that move away from the disposable lifestyle.    

"My thinking on this is it won't have a big impact on the environment," she says, "but people taking action, changing behavior in a way that is more sustainable, taking the next step—this has potential to be that catalyst."

On a recent visit to Latinos Unidos Mini-Mart on Airport Road, store clerk Diana Montoya tells SFR the shop has already begun preparing  customers for the ban by letting them know it's coming and giving away reusable bags. She points to a sign taped to the counter that explains to customers, in Spanish, that if they bring their own bag, they'll receive a 25-cent discount on any purchase. Montoya says customers have taken to the change. "At first we thought they'd be upset, but they say, 'It's better, it's good.'" At the bottom of the sign, next to a recycling symbol, are the words "Por un mundo mejor"—for a better world.

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