Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Grocery shopping and dining out could start looking a little different in Albuquerque under a proposal that would severely limit the use of plastic bags, straws and foam containers in the state’s largest city.
Albuquerque City Councilors Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego, Pat Davis and Diane Gibson, all Democrats, on Monday introduced the Albuquerque Clean & Green Retail Ordinance, a bill intended to “protect and enhance the city’s unique and precious environment, wildlife and beauty through the reduction of single-use non-compostable or non-recyclable bags, straws and containers and to encourage the use of reusable or sustainable options.”
The law would prohibit retailers from providing customers single-use plastic bags or foam containers for their purchases. It would also prevent businesses from distributing single-use straws unless they are paper or biodegradable, though it requires businesses that give out such straws to also have plastic versions available upon request “to provide accessibility options for persons with disabilities and medical requirements.”
The legislation would also make it illegal to distribute single-use paper bags and any single-use carry-out containers unless they meet the city’s recycling standards and the business alerts customers that they are recyclable.
The ordinance also would recommend that businesses encourage customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags.
There has been a worldwide movement to limit the use of single-use plastic straws and containers to protect the environment and wildlife, but there also has been criticism that biodegradable straws are not nearly as durable as plastic ones.
In July, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, and law in California that took effect Jan. 1 bans full-service restaurants from automatically giving customers plastic straws.
Davis said he and Benton started discussing the idea about a year ago but began moving quickly after last month’s City Council meeting. More than a dozen speakers advocated for such legislation during public comment at the Dec. 17 meeting, including Ashley McKenna, who started an online petition in late 2018 urging the city to stop retailers’ use of plastic bags.
“I have heard from so many citizens … that feel strongly and want to make this change here in Albuquerque to reduce our use and waste,” she told the council last month.
About 750 people had signed the change.org petition as of Monday afternoon.
But the speakers also included several elementary school-age children, including some from the Mountain Mahogany Community School’s Global Warming Express club. Davis said that helped push the pace on drafting a bill.
“We sort of put it on the fast track over the holidays after the kids showed up and had done their work organizing,” Davis said Monday.
Though the bill has not yet gone up for a vote, four students from the North Valley community school returned for Monday night’s City Council meeting. Eight-year-old Kaia Tullai told the panel during public comment why she supported the proposal.
“Plastic is rarely reused and hurts animals and pollutes our environment, and it takes so long to decompose,” she said. “Let’s get rid of it.”
Suki Wampler, also 8, thanked the council for taking up the issue.
“It makes me feel very happy because I kind of felt like they might just ignore me, because I’m smaller and they might not think I’m important,” she said in an interview after addressing the council. “I’m really glad they listened to our idea and that they’re going to consider it.”
Santa Fe in 2014 became the first city in New Mexico to restrict the use of plastic bags. City councilors there passed a resolution last May encouraging businesses not to provide plastic straws but did not impose a ban.
Albuquerque’s proposed ordinance notes that compliant bags or containers may be more expensive and allows retailers to charge customers up to 10 cents for each one they distribute.
“You have the ability to charge for it, and you can blame it on us,” Davis said.
But some industry groups are already questioning the ordinance. New Mexico Restaurant Association CEO Carol Wight said it’s concerning in part because of the expense, but also because similar laws around the country have strained the available supply of biodegradable takeout containers.
“What they’re asking for is not always available,” she said.
Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce CEO Terri Cole said in a statement that she had not seen the ordinance but worried that it amounted to “unnecessary, overregulation of businesses that would also hurt consumers in Albuquerque.”
Violations would be considered misdemeanors, although the ordinance provides for a 180-day grace period during which first offenses would be considered warnings.
The proposed ordinance also would require a study in fiscal year 2022 to determine the impact of the legislation.