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Proposed plastic bag, straw ban getting mixed reactions


Santos Baca carries groceries in a plastic bag after shopping at the Silver Street Market in Downtown Albuquerque Thursday afternoon. The city is looking to ban plastic grocery bags. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Ted and Dolores Aragon emerged from a Northeast Albuquerque Smith’s store on Wednesday afternoon with their freshly purchased groceries ensconced in three tan plastic bags – the type of bags some elected officials want to help eliminate in the state’s largest city.

As they loaded the food into their black pickup, the retirees said they enthusiastically support the newly proposed single-use plastic ban.

“I’m all for it,” Ted Aragon said, noting that he already keeps several reusable grocery bags in his vehicle. He just failed to carry them inside the store.

“I keep forgetting, but if they do away with them, I’ll have to (remember),” he said.

Four city councilors want to ban single-use plastic bags, straws and nonrecyclable takeout food containers, thereby adding Albuquerque to a growing list of communities enacting similar policies meant to protect the environment.

“Once it’s passed, it will be the city of Albuquerque’s commitment to a cleaner future for all of us,” said Councilor Diane Gibson, who co-sponsored the legislation with fellow Democratic colleagues Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego and Pat Davis.

But the idea does not sit well with everybody.

As they headed into the Walmart at Carlisle and Menaul NE on Wednesday afternoon, business partners LaDonna Carley and Kathy Willey expressed their objections.

Even though Carley often shops with reusable totes, she still likes to occasionally use single-use plastic bags to line trash cans or to separate and store items at home.

And she’s even more disconcerted by a different part of the ordinance.

“I can’t live without my straws,” she said, adding that the paper versions that will remain legal under the proposal are a poor substitute.

“They suck,” she said. “You take a couple of drinks out of them, and they’re all soggy and then they’re flat and they get caught in your teeth and throat.”

The new bill would not completely outlaw plastic straws. It would require any business that offers straws to keep plastic ones available for customers to “provide accessibility options for persons with disabilities and medical requirements.”

Councilor Benton this week acknowledged that change is often difficult but defended this one as necessary. The bills’ sponsors credited several elementary-school children for helping spur the legislation by advocating for a plastic bag ban during public comment at a City Council meeting in December. The children voiced concern about plastic bags’ impact on animal and human health and the environment.

Benton said biodegradable bags and food containers were the norm in his childhood.

Now, the average American uses 365 plastic bags a year, according to a 2018 National Geographic Report. And the country goes through a few hundred million straws per day, according to market research cited by The New York Times.

“We’ve only had a generation or two of these plastic replacements. There’s nothing wrong with going back in some cases; in this case, it’s time to reverse course and pay the true cost of our consumption, which is not going to be much, but it’s going to be a factor,” Benton said.

Bans in other cities

Albuquerque would follow the lead of cities like Seattle, which in 2018 banned restaurants and all food service providers from distributing plastic straws and utensils. In 2009, Seattle banned restaurants from using Styrofoam, and in 2010, it enacted a ban on all nonrecyclable or noncompostable disposable food packaging.

Sponsors of a newly proposed ban on single-use plastic products in Albuquerque say it’s intended to help protect the environment. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

California, meanwhile, has prohibited most retailers from giving out single-use plastic bags since 2016. A 2018 law prevents full-service restaurants from providing plastic straws, unless a customer requests one. But individual municipalities, such as Manhattan Beach, have passed more comprehensive bans.

The new Albuquerque proposal wraps multiple bans into one ordinance and is drawing fire from some in the private sector.

The legislation notes that major American businesses are moving in a similar direction. Starbucks said it plans to stop providing plastic straws by 2020, while Dunkin’ Donuts intends to quit using foam cups by next year. But Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce CEO Terri Cole said she is hearing “significant concerns” about the Albuquerque proposal from big and small businesses. She said it could raise costs for companies and therefore consumers, and is “uninformed government intrusion” that might make the city less attractive to businesses.

The New Mexico Restaurant Association has already signaled opposition, saying it would raise costs and force eateries to buy recyclable straws and carryout containers that are sometimes hard to find because of the growing demand for them.

Businesses, pro and con

Il Vicino, an Albuquerque-based pizza chain with eight locations in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, said the company is probably already compliant with the bill’s terms. The pizzeria packages large to-go orders in paper bags and has already switched to paper straws. They cost more, Post said, and took a while to source for the New Mexico locations, but they haven’t significantly affected costs. That’s largely because the wait staff stopped automatically distributing straws, giving them out only when customers want them, so the patrons use fewer. Post said he’s happy to see the new proposal.

“I think we’ll adjust. We need to do this … for the larger good, if you will,” he said. “There may be a little more expense, but I’m not against it.”

But Dan Garcia, an owner of Garcia’s Kitchen, said the ban would have a “huge” impact on the six-restaurant chain. Carryout represents about 30 percent to 40 percent of the company’s business, and the two Garcia’s drive-through locations exclusively use disposable cups and containers, even for patrons who eat inside.

The chain currently spends about 10 cents for single-compartment foam boxes, whereas a compliant recyclable version would cost around 30 cents. Garcia’s buys about 5,000 a month for its Indian School drive-through location, so a switch would raise costs about $12,000 per year for that one location. And that does not include swapping out straws, bags and other trays.

“If it was just the straws, OK, that’s not so bad,” Garcia said. But he said he objects to the proposal and said the totality of the ordinance, combined with other rising costs – he cited proposed paid sick leave legislation – means he would have no choice but to raise prices.

The new proposal would allow retailers to charge consumers up to 10 cents per approved bag. It would allow single-use paper bags, as long as they met the city’s recycling standards.

But Garcia said customers often complain about such small markups.

“It’s amazing. You try to tell a customer you’re going to charge them 10 cents per bag, (and they say,) ‘Oh, man, you guys are nickel-and-diming us,’ ” he said.