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Local stores prepare for plastic bag ban

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The start of the new year also means a new set of rules banning plastic bags at many Albuquerque and Bernalillo County stores, and local businesses are hustling to comply with the rules before January begins.

A plastic bag snagged in a tree flutters in the New Mexico wind. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

City and county officials are optimistic that the new rules will encourage customers to curb their use of single-use plastic bags, which contribute to waste and take a long time to break down.

“Having folks use reusable bags is definitely our message,” said Jill Holbert, associate director for Albuquerque’s Solid Waste Department.

However, several local business leaders said the new rules force them to swap out their supply of plastic bags for options that are more expensive for them and less convenient for customers.

“You’re putting the burden on the businesses that are supporting your community,” said Ernie C’de Baca, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce.

Santos Baca carries groceries in a plastic bag after shopping at the Silver Street Market in downtown Albuquerque Thursday afternoon. A city ordinance banning plastic bags is set to go into effect Jan. 1. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Albuquerque City Council passed the Clean and Green Retail Ordinance in April. The rule prohibits a variety of stores from giving out thin plastic bags during a sale, and goes into effect at the beginning of January. Holbert said up to 6,800 businesses, from corner markets to big box stores, may be affected by the new rules in Albuquerque. However, she added that restaurants were specifically excepted from the ordinance.

Customers are also permitted to bring plastic bags from home, though the city is encouraging residents to drop the plastic entirely in favor of reusable bags.

Later in the year, the Bernalillo County Commission passed a similar but separate rule banning polystyrene foam takeout containers, as well as plastic bags, at a variety of vendors in unincorporated areas of the county, including restaurants. The county rule also goes into effect Jan. 1.

Both bans apply only to bags provided at the point of sale, and exclude bags used to pick up bulk foods, fruits and vegetables and other products prior to the check-out line.

Nationwide, more than 240 cities, counties and states have banned plastic bags, citing the environmental impact of the bags on sewer systems and landfills. Consequently, large retailers like Target and Walmart have dealt with similar bans in other municipalities and are taking steps to reduce the volume of plastic they use during checkout. Earlier this year, Walmart announced that it would begin selling reusable bags at checkout at stores across the country.

A spokeswoman for Target wrote in an email that the company complies with all local and state ordinances, adding that every store offers alternatives to plastic bags and offers a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag used by customers.

However, some local stores are changing their supply chain entirely to comply with the rules, swapping out their whole supply of plastic bags to provide compliant and eco-friendly options for customers who leave their reusable bags at home, at an additional cost to the company.

Kelly Ortman, co-owner of Silver Street Market, said her store will be selling its supply of plastic bags to an out-of-state vendor and switching over to paper bags at the start of the year. She added that paper bags cost around 11 cents each, compared to about 2.5 cents for each plastic bag, an additional cost that may eventually trickle down to customers.

“Customers may, over time, see an increase in the cost of groceries,” she said.

Companies have the option to charge a fee for providing alternatives to reusable bags, though Ortman said her market will hold off until they have a better idea of how bigger stores will approach the ban.

“I think everyone’s just waiting to see what the big guys will do,” Ortman said.

Ortman said she was concerned that the ban might be harder on her customers than most. Because of Silver Street Market’s location in Downtown Albuquerque, she said more of her customers walk or ride bikes, and paper bags can be harder to handle on a bike.

Unlike in an earlier iteration of the ordinance, restaurants are specifically exempted from the version passed by the City Council. However, at least one local restaurant, Garcia’s Kitchen, swapped out all of its bags for environmentally friendly options just in case.

Miia Hebert, catering and marketing director for Garcia’s, said the company switched over to biodegradable plastic bags earlier this year, in part to be proactive if and when the city opts to restrict plastic bag use at businesses.

“We just wanted to be prepared,” Hebert said.

Hebert added that the switch will cost the company between $6,500 and $7,000 annually, depending on how many bags get used.

In preparation for the change, both the city and county have reached out to business owners and customers to let them know the ins and outs of the new rules. Larry Gallegos, spokesman for Bernalillo County, said the county sent out letters to every company that would be affected by the ban in unincorporated areas of the county and posted a list of frequently asked questions on the county website, with videos in English and Spanish.

Gallegos said companies can keep using plastic bags and polystyrene takeout containers that they purchased prior to the start of January. He added that the county will be lenient with businesses that are working to comply with the new rules.

“We’ve always been about compliance and not about punishing people,” Gallegos said.

On the city side, Holbert added that the city of Albuquerque has promoted the new rules through a variety of platforms, including radio and social media. She said the city has also distributed bags in a variety of public spaces and will lead several bag giveaway events at local grocery stores in January.

To learn more about the city ordinance, visit www.cabq.gov/solidwaste/clean-and-green-retail-ordinance. Information about the county ordinance is available at www.bernco.gov/planning/plastic-and-polystyrene-ban-faqs.aspx

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