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City Council OKs ban on plastic bags

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Plastic bags are on their way out.

But straws and foam carryout containers are OK – for now.

After hearing from nearly 40 speakers – with supporters outnumbering opponents about 3 to 1 – the Albuquerque City Council late Monday passed an amended version of the Clean and Green Retail Ordinance.

The bill, introduced in January by Councilors Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego, Pat Davis and Diane Gibson, will prohibit businesses from providing single-use plastic bags to customers at the point of sale.

As originally written, it would have also banned businesses from providing foam to-go food containers and severely restricted the distribution of plastic straws.

However, Councilor Ken Sanchez introduced an amendment to remove those components. It also exempted dry cleaners and restaurants from the plastic bag ban.

Though Benton, Davis and Gibson objected to the change when it was introduced, they voted with Borrego and Sanchez to adopt the altered legislation, which passed 5-3.

Benton expressed disappointment in the limited final version, but called it an important first step.

“This is the way we get going,” he said.

Davis said there are constituents who want to keep pursuing more restrictions on single-use plastics and he hopes to see the momentum continue.

“This is a big step for our city, but it doesn’t have to be the last one,” he said.

The council’s three Republicans – Don Harris, Trudy Jones and Brad Winter – cast the votes against the bill.

“My experience with other issues coming down the pike – the sick leave ordinance, minimum wage that passed in Santa Fe, as well as here locally – I think we’re squeezing our local businesses and restaurants so much,” Harris said, echoing the sentiments of some of the law’s opponents.

Speaking on behalf of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, J.D. Bullington urged the city to consider other, less “onerous” alternatives to a ban, saying prohibiting businesses from using single-use plastics means higher costs.

“Consumers will bear the brunt of this policy through both higher prices and more inconvenience,” he said.

Restaurateur Larry Rainosek, owner of Frontier and Golden Pride, told the council the bill as introduced would have increased his costs by $265,000 a year.

“At what price point will the customers quit coming?” he said.

But the majority of people who stood during public comment implored the council to approve the ban. They cited dying birds, litter-plagued streets and the impact of microplastics on human health.

As in past meetings, several young people asked the council to proceed.

“In the year 2519, the Styrofoam cup you used this morning will still exist,” said 14-year-old Olivia Gonzales, a freshman at the Public Academy for Performing Arts.

“By continuing to use plastic this way, you’re telling my generation that our future doesn’t matter as much as yours, that we have to start from the bottom in order to make a difference because it’s too difficult for us to start right now.

“People have told me that one person or one community or one city won’t make a difference in this growing problem, but that’s how change starts: with me, you and a simple idea that change is possible.”

Joan Brown of the New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light organization called the move a “moral imperative” and a way to foster greater societal change.

“We keep saying we want to be a kinder, more compassionate city and this is a step toward that,” she said. “It calls us all to be more mindful of what kind of things we are using, how we use them. A greater respect for the items in our lives means a greater respect for one another.”

The vote came just four days after the city completed its economic impact analysis of the original proposal.

The report prepared by City Council staff found a plastic bag ban in Albuquerque could keep about 120 million such bags out of the landfill each year and another 20 million from storm drain systems. It could also save the city millions in cleanup expenses.

But the move could cost businesses and consumers more, the study said, and actually increase material going to the landfill – although it would decompose far faster.

Staff found the costs for a business to comply would likely vary depending on several factors, but that a review of an online restaurant supplier’s prices found that swapping single-use plastics with options that the ordinance would allow means businesses could pay 2-5 cents more per bag and 5-12 cents more per to-go container.

An extra 3,109 tons of paper bags would likely end up in the landfill under the ban, according to estimates from the city’s Solid Waste Department.

“It must be noted that paper trash decomposes at a much faster rate than plastics, within one month, and produces less contaminates,” the report said. “Paper bags are also recycled at a higher rate than plastic overall, or 60%.”

This will take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

A first offense comes with a warning, but penalties can escalate up to $250.

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