By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Paper or plastic?
Not if Sen. Jeff Steinborn has his way.
The Las Cruces Democrat is pushing a proposal that would prohibit grocery and liquor stores, restaurants, pharmacies and other retail establishments across New Mexico from providing their customers single-use plastic bags.
Steinborn described his proposed statewide ban on single-use plastic bags as an effort to fight pollution and litter.
“The average person uses over 300 single-use plastic bags a year, which is a staggering number,” he said Monday. “Less than 5% of them are recycled and conversely what we’re seeing with plastic is that it never really biodegrades, so we’re putting a lot of harmful substances into the environment that will be around for a very, very long time.”
Senate Bill 243, which the Senate Conservation Committee is scheduled to consider Tuesday, contains eight exemptions, including bags to package loose items, such as fruit and vegetables, and bags sold in packages intended for garbage, pet waste or yard waste.
“There’s some common-sense kind of exclusions to that prohibition and then we give the Environment Department the latitude to work out anything we might have missed,” he said.
Single-use plastic bags are one of the most littered items out there, Steinborn said.
“We see it on roadways, so I think this bill, aside from keeping a lot of plastic from degrading into New Mexico’s environment … will also help clean up New Mexico,” he said.
Ten Democrats in the Senate have signed on as co-sponsors, including Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas.
While single-use plastic bags would be prohibited, retailers could provide their customers recyclable cardboard boxes, which the bill defines as a box made of non-waxed cardboard or paper, or recycled content paper bags, which it defines as a paper bag that contains at minimum 40% post-consumer recycled content and is 100% recyclable.
“I’ve worked really hard to make a really common-sense bill that’s just about shifting purchasing from one product to another that instantly will have a huge impact on our environment,” Steinborn said.
The bill is likely to generate opposition from grocers and other retailers.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, said the bill reflects “a lack of understanding of how people can be environmentally responsible” with single-use plastic bags.
“There’s more than one way to save the environment or be environmentally conscious,” he said. “What my area and many of the people even within my family do is we’ll reuse the plastic bags, repurpose them. … If we just reused it and got multiple uses out of that item, that would be just as beneficial to the environment.”
Pirtle said New Mexicans often use plastic bags they get from the store to line their trash cans at home or pick up dog poop.
“If we were repurposing our shopping bags, you can simply use those as opposed to creating an entire different plastic bag,” he said. “This idea that somehow the plastic bag or banning plastic bags is going to somehow prevent people from using them is just ridiculous.”
Steinborn said “it’s kind of a myth” that plastic can be recycled.
“They degrade to a point where they’re being called microplastics, and research is showing them in the most pristine environments on the planet, from rivers to even wildlife,” he said. “That’s pretty scary.”
New Mexico would join nine other states that have banned single-use plastic bags if Steinborn’s bill becomes law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“While some states are focusing on implementing effective recycling programs, others are imposing bans or fees to discourage the use of plastic bags altogether,” the organization wrote on its website.
While New Mexico doesn’t have a statewide ban, a number of cities, including Santa Fe, have prohibited single-use plastic bags within their boundaries. Santa Fe’s ban took effect in 2014.
The Albuquerque City Council voted to ban single-use plastic bags in 2019. After the ban was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the administration of Mayor Tim Keller reinstated it, but a more conservative council ultimately repealed the so-called Albuquerque Clean and Green Retail Ordinance.
While single-use plastic bags are banned in Santa Fe, customers can purchase paper bags for 10 cents apiece.
Steinborn said his bill doesn’t call for fees for paper bags or cardboard boxes, but it doesn’t preclude a city or county from passing a local ordinance such as Santa Fe’s.
“We have to really grapple with plastics as a state,” he said. “This is a great first step for us, and where they’ve done it, they’ve seen really good benefits. … This will be really positive for New Mexico if we can get it done.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.