ESB ponders a plastic bag ban

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By Arin McKenna

During its January meeting, Mark Jones, chair of the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club, asked the Environmental Sustainability Board to consider a plastic bag ban similar to one recently passed in Santa Fe.
 “There are a lot of reasons that it doesn’t make sense to use the plastic bags,” Jones said. “So we want the county to ban the plastic bags and encourage people to use the reusable bags, which many of us are already doing.”
Santa Fe’s Reusable Bag Ordinance goes into effect Feb. 27, although one provision may be altered before the law is implemented. The city’s new attorney believes a provision to charge a 10-cent fee on paper bags may be illegal.
Most plastic bag bans impose a fee on paper bags to encourage the use of reusable bags. Paper bags are made from renewable resources and create less litter than plastic bags, but require more resources to manufacture, transport and recycle or dispose of.
A paper bag fee in Los Angeles resulted in a lawsuit, on the grounds that the fee constituted a tax. The court ruled that since the fee is retained by the retailer and not returned to the city, it is not a tax. The Santa Fe ordinance also allows retailers to keep the fee.
The Santa Fe city council will consider an amendment to the ordinance on Feb. 26, the day before it goes into effect.
“One of the things we’ll be doing is looking carefully at what went on in Santa Fe in crafting the ordinance for Los Alamos,” Jones said.
The goal of the Santa Fe ordinance is to “conserve resources, reduce waste, litter, pollution and protect the public health and welfare.” The ordinance also cites problems with increasing plastic bag litter and its impact on tourism, wildlife and aesthetics.
According to the Santa Fe ordinance, plastic bags take hundreds of years to biodegrade, breaking down into toxic bits that contaminate soil and water. The bags also enter the food web when wildlife inadvertently ingests them, and often result in the deaths of animals.
“The whole notion of using oil to create something that’s going to be used once and thrown away, I find offensive,” Jones said. Jones also said the making and transportation of the bags also adds to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Although Jones hopes that eventually the ESB will hold a public meeting to discuss the pros and cons of such an ordinance and take a position on it, he is not asking for “rapid action.”
“We think it makes sense to spend some time making presentations to various organizations about what we have in mind and why we want to do it, and hopefully build a reasonable constituency, make the community aware of it, rather than just drop it on the council and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you do this.’” Jones said.
Jones anticipates a campaign of two to three months or more to make presentations and circulate a petition.
“This is not a formal petition meant to bring something to a vote, but just an expression of concern by whomever signs it that they would like the county council to take this action,” Jones said.
The proposed ban is beginning to generate interest. The Sierra Club is working with the League of Women Voters to present the issue to the public, and others are also getting on board.
“A number of individuals from PEEC have been interested. PEEC, for a long time, has been encouraging people to use the reusable bags rather than plastic,” Jones said. “We have a young woman from the high school that’s very enthusiastic and is going to be trying to work with groups there. We had a Girl Scout troop leader say that her troop was interested, perhaps, in working with us.”
Members of the Girl Scout troop and some high school students spoke in support of an ordinance at the ESB meeting, and others expressed support at an organizational meeting preceding the ESB meeting.
The ESB discussed Jones’ presentation but took no action.
“As the conversation went, it’s clear that this is the kind of action that in this town will be more well-received as a voluntary action than as a requirement,” board Chair Steve Boerigter said. “So we, the board, will probably put it on the agenda sometime out into the future to officially discuss the possibility of a plastic bag ordinance.”
Boerigter said the board did not appear to be supportive of a ban.
“I think we collectively in that conversation recognized that the fundamental issue here is changing people’s behavior,” Boerigter said. “Once people get used to carrying their own bags in and out, they find that that’s a far superior way to haul your groceries into your house. So you’d rather not use plastic bags most of the time if you remember to take your grocery bags. Outright bans have a lot of challenges.”
Public Works Director Philo Shelton also updated the Los Alamos Monitor on plans to fill two key vacancies in the Environmental Services Department.
“I had my environmental superintendent leave shortly after Tom’s departure (Environmental Service Specialist Tom Nagawiecki),” Shelton said.
“So I’ve combined the two jobs into one, where we have an environmental services manager. We had a position like that a few years ago, so we’re basically bringing that position back to oversee environmental services.”
The manager will be in charge of day-to-day operations as well as environmental sustainability outreach.
The search closed on Friday. Shelton hopes to interview applicants this month, present an offer to the successful candidate in March and have the position filled by April.