Santa Fe’s ban on plastic bags isn’t making the city greener.
Less than a year after formally implemented the ban, the City Council is now looking for a more effective solution. As recent studies have shown, instead of bringing reusable bags on their shopping trips, Santa Fe citizens have simply traded plastic for paper – nullifying the law’s sustainability objectives.
In the months following Santa Fe’s bag ban, the Environmental Services Division surveyed local retailers on its effects. After two months, 97 percent of stores reported that less than one percent of customers were bringing their own reusable bags. Two months later, according to 68 percent of respondents, that number was still below five percent.
Without reusable sacks at the ready or the option of plastic at the checkout, shoppers in Santa Fe are forced to use paper bags for their purchases. But as numerous studies have shown, paper isn’t the best choice for the environment. Plastic bags require 70 percent less energy to manufacture and generate 80 percent less waste.
Even the preferred reusable bags aren’t a perfect option. Most – made from non-recyclable nonwoven polypropylene – are used fewer than eight times before they too end up in the waste stream, where they take up more space than plastic bags. In fact, plastic shopping bags are only a tiny fraction of the country’s solid waste stream – a mere .4 percent.
Of course, no amount of litter is acceptable and any effort to minimize waste is commendable, but we can keep Santa Fe pristine without banning an option that both customers and businesses prefer.
As the report goes on to say, both have begun to feel the negative consequences of the ban. Santa Fe citizens, who previously used their old plastic bags for other reasons, miss the availability of this convenient and durable option. And Santa Fe isn’t alone in this – nine out of ten Americans reuse plastic grocery bags for everything from padding valuables for storage to packing lunches and lining trash bins.
Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of retailers in Santa Fe have already indicated a significant negative impact from providing the more expensive carryout options – options that also leave them more susceptible to shoplifting.
With clear evidence that the plastic bag ban isn’t working as intended, one would think Santa Fe’s City Council would begin considering more viable methods for meeting sustainability goals. Think again.
Despite legal uncertainties, local officials are now reconsidering ways to levy a fee on paper bags in addition to the ban. A 10-cent fee was part of the original ordinance passed last summer, but was dropped after the city attorney expressed concerns of it constituting an illegal tax.
Others have raised similar concerns. According to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, fees on single-use bags violate the state’s Solid Waste and Disposal Act. And in California, concerned citizens are working to overturn a statewide ban that promises to line the pockets of grocers and special interest groups at the expense of the environment and hardworking Californians. Under SB 270, funds collected from the paper bag fee won’t go to an environmental or government initiative, but to the grocery store owners themselves.
The same potentially illegal – and certainly, unacceptable – transfer of wealth could occur in Santa Fe if the City Council has its way.
Across the country, 82 percent of Americans believe the types of shopping bags they use should be their choice, not a decision mandated by the government. Instead of meddling in the choice of consumers – and spending thousands in the process – local officials should turn their attention to consumer education and recycling for effective environmental stewardship.
As Santa Fe has experienced firsthand, plastic bag bans aren’t an environmental silver bullet. Amending the ineffective law won’t change that fact. The City Council must consider alternative green initiatives that don’t also harm the local economy.[box type=”note” style=”rounded”]Originally published on the Rio Grande Foundation’s blog — www.errorsofenchantment.com — and reproduced here with permission from the author. [/box]
 Franklin Associates, Ltd., “Resource and Environmental Proﬁle Analysis of. Polyethylene and Unbleached Paper Grocery Sacks.”
 ABC News: Paper or Plastic? Just the Facts. 1/7/2006 & Boustead Consulting & Associates: “Life Cycle Assessment for Three Types of Grocery Bags—Recyclable Plastic; Compostable, Biodegradable Plastic; and Recycled, Recyclable Paper,” 2007