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Editorial: ABQ’s proposed plastic ban should model Santa Fe’s

You can’t rush a good thing.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Albuquerque City Council is in danger of doing if it pushes through a controversial proposed plastics ban in current form.

The Albuquerque Clean & Green Retail Ordinance was introduced earlier this year by Democratic councilors Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego, Patrick Davis and Diane Gibson, in part in response to a groundswell of support for reducing waste via a plastics ban at the council’s Dec. 17 meeting. Speakers at the meeting included several elementary school students.

Reducing plastic waste is an important goal, and a growing number of American cities – including Santa Fe – have rolled out plastic bag limitations smoothly.

But Albuquerque’s proposed bill is bedeviled both by overbroad language and a serious lack of details that some business owners are having a hard time swallowing.

Councilors are considering slowing down, only approving part of the proposed ordinance at Monday’s meeting. That would be a good thing – but still, the devil’s in the details.

In its current form, the ordinance would be among the most aggressive in the nation and would take several actions, including:

• Fully banning businesses from providing customers with single-use plastic bags or single-use foam containers at point of sale.

• Banning businesses from providing non-recyclable paper bags or carryout containers.

• Banning businesses from giving out plastic straws unless the customer requests one.

• Requiring businesses to post signs encouraging recycling if they’re using recyclable paper bags, carryout containers or straws.

• Allowing businesses to charge 10 cents per bag or container.

A few sticking points: The ban, as written, doesn’t define which businesses would be impacted. The ordinance also puts the definition of “recyclable” in the hands of the Director of Solid Waste instead of spelling it out clearly, which means retailers could be scrambling to prepare for compliance. For example, the city’s recycling program does not take pizza boxes because of residual food.

Local food industry workers fret about that opaqueness and how it might affect their livelihood. They worry that recyclable and compostable containers have varying shades of structural integrity – a chile-smothered enchilada has different takeout box needs than a burger with fries – and they are concerned about whether the manufacturers of green takeout containers can keep up with the demand.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said in a meeting this week that her organization supports a plastics bill, but one more like the one Santa Fe adopted a few years ago.

Santa Fe’s law focuses solely on plastic bags and doesn’t address carryout containers or straws. It also clearly defines its terms, and carves out exceptions for bags used by restaurants for takeout food. It also takes the bag fee a little further, requiring retailers to charge 10 cents per paper grocery bag unless the customer is using government assistance to make the buy.

According to a story in Friday’s Journal, Albuquerque city councilors are considering taking the bill section by section, perhaps only passing a plastic bag ordinance Monday night and leaving the other issues for further down the road.

But even the plastic bag portion of the ordinance could use some tweaking by more closely modeling Santa Fe’s ordinance. There is merit in the way Santa Fe rolled out its ban: starting slow and granting an exception for restaurants, allowing them to put carryout orders in plastic bags. Retailers like Dillards can still give out heavy-duty plastic bags that can theoretically be reused. A scaled-back ban will give consumers time to adjust, and restaurant owners time to find more green-friendly products that fit their budgets in preparation for a future expansion.

Reducing plastic waste is a necessity in our city. We throw it out on the West Mesa and keep it as a neighbor. But the issue is complex, and the impact on local businesses and consumers simply cannot be ignored. Better to start slow and craft a measure the whole community can get behind.

As for those restaurant owners crying foul, it’s time for them to come up with their own initiatives and show they are part of the solution.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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