Plastic bag bans “feel good” but have unintended consequences

The following was written in the wake of the City of Albuquerque’s adoption of a plastic bag ban, but with Bernalillo County now considering such a ban remains quite relevant.

The Albuquerque City Council’s recent decision to ban plastic grocery bags is a textbook example of politicians rushing to pass “feel good” laws rather than pursuing rational, evidence-based solutions to the city’s challenges. In a rush to satisfy activists who want to see New Mexico become the next California, city council members not only ignored strong objections raised by the business community, they also ignored the city’s own study which found this new policy will have many negative unintended consequences. And judging by the final text of the ordinance they passed, the city council also showed how poorly they thought this policy through. 

Ordinance #O-19-48—which goes by the misnomer “Clean and Green Retail Ordinance,” makes it illegal for businesses to give out a “single-use” plastic bag. However, nowhere in the bill is a “single-use” bag defined, a major oversight that is bound to create an atmosphere of confusion for small business owners throughout Albuquerque.  

The ordinance, which was passed along party lines, also “authorizes” businesses to charge a up to a 10-cent fee for a paper bag. This is beyond silly because businesses in New Mexico have always had the ability to charge for bags if they thought it was worthwhile. This can only be considered a thinly-veiled attempt by the city council to pass the cost of their new policy onto consumers while avoiding blame for increasing costs on consumers. 

Families will be forced to pay more at the checkout aisle, but instead of benefiting schools or recycling programs, the proceeds of this 10-cent fee will go straight to pad the bottom line of giant grocery store corporations. Surely if the city council thought through this bill, they would not have included a giveaway to corporations on the backs of low-income residents in the form of a regressive fee.  

It is also unclear how the city will enforce this new poorly-defined mandate, which makes giving out a plastic bag a misdemeanor and exposes businesses to monetary fines each day the city deems them “out of compliance.” Perhaps Albuquerque will become the next Washington, D.C., which has to employ a full time “straw cop” making $60,000 a year to enforce its new plastic straw ban. Instead of policing businesses and consumers at the checkout line, Albuquerque’s city council should use their finite resources to focus on other more pressing issues like public safety and education.

But the inconsistent, contradictory and unenforceable nature of the city council’s new ordinance is not the only problem. The very premise the ordinance is based on is false. Banning plastic grocery bags because they are “single use” ignores the fact that over 90% of Americans reuse their plastic bags at least once, usually as a trashcan liner or to carry household items like a packed lunch. Additionally, alternatives to plastic bags are more environmentally costly and have a greater impact on the environment. Don’t take my word for it—this is fact is made clear by the very study commissioned by the city council which found a ban would actually increase the amount of material headed to the landfill and “plastic production and disposal overall results in less greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water and fertilizer inputs than the paper, aluminum, cotton or glass alternatives.” 

So if the city council’s plastic bag ban is ill-defined, unenforceable and ineffective in reducing plastic waste, what exactly will it accomplish? The answer is unfortunately, not much, except to make the city less welcoming to businesses. 

It’s worth noting that not every city council member voted for this ridiculous policy, which if passed in its original form would have also increased costs for businesses even more by banning straws and polystyrene food containers. Republican council members Don Harris, Trudy Jones and Brad Winter should be applauded for standing up for common sense and warning against policies that will further squeeze businesses in the city. Instead of forcing flawed legislation through along party lines, the other city council members should listen to these voices of reason and work together to make the city a more welcoming place for businesses and families. 

Is that too much to ask? 

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One Reply to “Plastic bag bans “feel good” but have unintended consequences”

  1. Dear All, NPR has produced a very interesting Podcast referencing some very pertinent studies on the unfortunate unintended consequences of similar plastic bag bans.

    I earlier forwarded this to the ABQ Journal suggesting they do similar investigative reporting, but have not heard anything from them.
    Please take the time to listen to this and use your platform to get the news out.

    Thank you for all your hard work!

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