Trying to make sense of the bag ban that really never was

A shopper pushes a shopping cart full of bagged groceries to his car in the parking lot of Smith’s near Coal and Yale SE. After a plastic bag ban went into effect, some retailers started providing shoppers with thicker plastic bags. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

It was the greenest of occasions and locations, which was perfect when Mayor Tim Keller signed the ordinance banning single-use plastic bags, surrounded by fresh-faced children and environmentally woke folk on Earth Day 2019 at La Montañita Co-op.

We were finally going to save the planet, one plastic bag at a time.

It was April, and the ban was eight months away from its January 2020 effective date, which presumably gave citizens plenty of time to work out their angst over the loss of their convenient polyethylene pouches while they learned to embrace the reusable-bag habit at grocery and other stores.

Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t jump on the bag-ban wagon were still in luck at such big box stores as Target and Walmart; both started providing sturdier, thicker plastic bags.

Back then, a Target clerk told me the bags were a temporary courtesy to those who still couldn’t get into the BYOBag scene. The bags, she said, were thicker so that they could be used repeatedly.

When the pandemic took hold in March 2020, the bag ban was put on hold for sanitation reasons. But the thicker bags never left completely, used by some stores for their burgeoning curbside delivery service.

The bag ban returned Aug. 1. Those thicker bags are still in use at even more stores now – and, so far, there’s no specific date to get rid of them.

That’s disappointing to the environmentally woke folk who say that city officials told them months ago the loophole that stores are using to justify thicker bags would soon be closed. Now, the groups say, the city is saying nothing will likely be done until next summer.

“These bags totally defeat the whole purpose of the bag ban,” said Anni Hanna, founder of NM Climate Justice. “If anything, it increases the plastics problem.”

Last week, Hanna’s group and 25 other local environmental groups signed a letter to Keller asking him to close the loophole, which they say was created by the city.

“The issue of the thicker bags was not in the ordinance,” said Celerah Hewes of Moms Clean Air Force. “That was decided on by the city Solid Waste Department.”

The groups say Solid Waste elected to define the banned bags as being made of plastic that is less than 2.25 ml. Use a thicker bag and, voila, instant loophole.

A shopping bag is caught on a tree branch near downtown Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Which is to say that what the city has effectively done to reduce the use of plastic bags littering streets, filling landfills, clogging sewers and killing wildlife is to replace them with bags made with even more plastic.

The thicker bags, the groups say, take longer to decompose and introduce even more toxic chemicals into the environment.

Let me add that these bags are no substitutes for the thinner bags, which were handy as bathroom wastebasket liners, kitty litter disposal and dog poop collecting. Opponents of bag bans say consumers are now buying small bags for those tasks, thus rendering bag bans senseless since they ultimately bring more plastic into the environment.

And plastic bags are not acceptable under the city’s recycling program.

How does any of this make sense?

City officials are evasive.

“Thicker plastic bags are reusable and currently allowed; however, they will eventually be phased out, as well,” Emily Moore, spokeswoman for the city’s Solid Waste, said in a statement. “This program is part of the administration’s ongoing commitment to implementing equitable policies that make our city a cleaner, more sustainable place without creating unintended burdens for any of our communities.”

When pressed with why thicker bags were allowed in the first place and what “eventually” means, Moore repeated that the thicker bags are reusable and that “there is no specific date as to when these bags will be phased out.”

Hewes and Hanna say they have been told nothing will likely be done until the completion of an impact study required under the Clean and Green ordinance.

According to the ordinance, an administrative committee is to convene next year to evaluate the efficacy of the bag ban by determining the number of “prohibited” bags and containers diverted from the “public waste stream” and the percentage of customers using reusable bags “as can reasonably be determined.”

The committee’s report is then to be presented to the mayor and the City Council before June 30, 2022.

Under the ordinance, it does not appear that the thicker bags will be considered in the report. Hanna and Hewes call this a form of “greenwashing,” misleading the public into believing that the city and the stores using thicker bags are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

They say they’re concerned that plastic bags have become as politically polarizing as masks, and that is why the mayor and his administration are doing nothing to close the loophole until long after the November election.

“We were really blindsided,” Hewes said. “Keller has always been such a leader in fighting climate change and protecting our children’s health.”

But let’s face it: Eliminating plastic bags is a small drop in a very large, very toxic bucket of climate change. As carbon footprints go, plastic bags are small when compared with, say, driving fossil-fueled cars, cutting down forests and eating meat, but I doubt enough of us are willing to give up those.

Bagging these bags may be a small effort. But it’s a start, and it’s something we can all do with relative ease and low cost, one plastic bag at a time.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.


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