What’s better than a plastic bag? In ABQ, more plastic bags

The following article by Rio Grande Foundation Vice President Patrick Brenner appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on December 30, 2021.

With food prices on the rise, Albuquerque is again changing the rules for shopping bags. The Mayor Tim Keller administration will now mandate that stores offer only those with “stitched handles.” But these bags have a dirty secret: the vast majority are made of plastic. All this policy is likely to accomplish is to drive up costs for struggling businesses. Those costs will be passed on to consumers.

In an interview, City Councilor Pat Davis said the new rules are necessary because stores were handing out thicker reusable plastic bags – an alleged “loophole.” So, the city came up with a solution: require bags be at least 4 mils thick and to have stitched handles.

But here’s the funny part. The reusable plastic bags that drew Davis’ ire were about half as thick as the new, seemingly random 4 mil standard. Only in Albuquerque could the government double the thickness of plastic bags as an attempt to eliminate them from stores.

Aside from being thicker, these “stitched handle” bags, the kind retailers sell for a couple of dollars at checkout counters, are made from such plastics as polypropylene, nylon and polyethylene terephthalate. Most are imported from bag manufacturers based in some of the world’s worst polluting countries. Research from Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency actually found that these stitched bags have larger environmental impacts than the bags they are supposed to replace.

While this ludicrous ban is just another case of government intervention delivering the exact opposite of what was promised, it is no laughing matter for small businesses and struggling families.

As costs soar for everything due to supply chain disruptions, labor challenges, shortages and inflation, they can expect another hit considering that the newly mandated bags are significantly more expensive than what had been allowed previously. When retailers can get their hands on bags, consumers can expect those costs to translate to higher costs – and getting bags is no sure thing.

In recent weeks, communities as far flung as Anchorage, Alaska, and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, voted to suspend their bag bans as stores struggle to find affordable alternative products. In Washington state, small businesses report similar issues trying to comply with their bag ban, which allows for more flexibility than Albuquerque’s new “stitched-handles” rule.

While one or two dollars every time a shopper forgets their bag may not seem like much to some, this policy represents a regressive tax on our most vulnerable neighbors. With inflation the worst it has been in at least three decades, our leaders should be focused on ways to help struggling families, not piling up additional costs on folks trying to put food on the table.

Whether from an environmental or an economic perspective, the latest diktats from the Mayor’s Office appear likely to do more harm than good. Maybe it’s time for the newly elected City Council to just throw the entire anti-environment, anti-freedom plastic bag ban out and restore consumer choice.

The Rio Grande Foundation is New Mexico’s free-market research institute and think tank. An advocate for open government, Patrick Monroe Brenner leads the foundation’s government transparency and accountability efforts.