Letter to the Editor: What About Plastic Bags?

By Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club
Los Alamos

Los Alamos County Public Works Director Philo Shelton contracted with a new recycler, Friedman Recycling, a state-of-the-art facility in Albuquerque that recycles items previously prohibited such as #1 through #7 plastic containers, rigid plastic toys, and cereal/cracker boxes.

The information circular distributed with your utility bill also states that you can Blue-Bin single-use plastic grocery bags. This recycling, however, comes with a caveat: you can recycle the bags, but unless Friedman Recycling has a market for them, the bags get trucked to the Rio Rancho landfill.
The biggest, most profitable recycle market for these bags is for building material, primarily building planks and decking; however, as Mr. Shelton pointed out, in this economic climate with the millions of bags discarded every day far outpacing the demand for construction, most of our Los Alamos bags still end up blowing in the New Mexico winds to shred on barbed wire and cholla.
U.S. retailers distribute 90,000 bags per week; of those, only 1 percent is recycled. Of course, once we have a bag, reuse or recycling is critical, but not getting the bag in the first place is many times more rational. Those who support a ban believe reason will prevail sooner or later, and our goal is to prevail sooner.
Here are some questions that would need to be addressed:
What would be banned? Initially, a bag ban would follow the guidelines of other successful bans in the US (bans in Europe and many other nations are more robust): only the dual-handled bags at a thickness of 2.25 mils or less, intended for carrying products from the store to the home then discarded or recycled. Plastic bags not banned include bags heavier than 2.25 mils (durable enough for multiple reuse), small produce and meat bags, and bags for restaurant carry-out.
Here’s the crucial question: Why do we need single-use plastic shopping bags? Primarily, for convenience. Here’s the scenario: you get to the store (say, Smiths) and you don’t have to remember to get your bags out of
the car. So what happens is baggers put an item or two in each beige bag, and you go home with enough plastic to make a fluffy tutu for a water buffalo (okay, more practically, multiple months’ supply of garbage and cat-litter bags).
Here’s a secondary question: What might merchants think? We have contacted a few merchants. First, the good news—among Smiths stores in New Mexico, Los Alamos customers already have the highest rate of  reuseable bags.
Merchant concerns, however, include: 
  • Do the community and other stores support the ban?
  • Will all stores, or only Smiths, be forced to ban the single-use bag?
  • What are bag rules for restaurants?
  • Exactly which bags are banned?
  • Is the Farmer’s Market is exempt?
  • Will shoppers simply go to Walmart rather than forego bags at local merchants?
Merchants brought up the fact that many Santa Fe shopkeepers are dissatisfied with their bag-ban because, with paper available, shoppers haven’t been conditioned to remember to bring their own bags. This is because the Santa Fe ordinance did not retain its originally stipulated 10-cent fee on paper bags. Paper at 8-10 cents a bag is much more expensive than 2-3 cents per plastic; therefore, at least one merchant prefers that our ordinance retain the fee imposed on paper. The fee, however, is a win-win; merchants win because they don’t have to absorb the cost of the bag, and the environment wins because the fee encourages the use of reuseable bags.
And finally, who cares if we ban the bag? The future cares. At PEEC’s Earth Day, the Sierra Club invited kids to use its button-making machine to make their own ban-the-bag button. As dozens made their buttons, Sierrans
took the opportunity to ask, “Do you know why we want to bag the ban?”
They all said yes. Because: “They litter everywhere,” “They’re toxic to the environment,” “They get in the ocean and kill the turtles because they think they’re jellyfish,” “They use up resources,” “I’m from Germany (his dad explained, ‘there’s no such thing in Germany’),” “My mom always takes bags.” One fourth grade boy from Mountain School summed it up with, “Yes! Of course I know!” he said, rolling his eyes as if we adults were morons (an obvious assumption, given the state of the Earth that we have handed to him). “Using plastic bags is just plain stupid!”

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