BY JOYCE ANDERSON
Save Los Alamos, formerly Save the Bag Los Alamos.
In 2015, the citizens of Los Alamos County defeated a proposed ban on plastic shopping bags brought forth by the Sierra Club and League of Women Voters. The supporters of this ban like to say they weren’t aiming for a ban, they just wanted a tax on bags to curb their usage. Don’t believe it. It started as a ban, and morphed into a tax, when they knew it wasn’t going to happen to try and save face. The Los Alamos Cpounty Council, the Environmental Sustainability Board (ESB), and citizens of our community spent hundreds of hours researching this issue, and many more hours presenting, debating and discussing this issue. The people of Los Alamos overwhelmingly opposed this ban, the ESB voted it down twice, and the Council unanimously rejected it. I believe our community still does not want these types of bans enacted.
In July of 2019, members of the Los Alamos Garden Club, the League of Women Voters, and others resurrected the ban on plastic shopping bags in Los Alamos, with the addition of a ban on drinking straws and Styrofoam containers. I was at the July 9th County Council meeting where this issue was discussed at length by the Council. They also took almost an hour’s worth of public comments on the issue as well.
In the Council meeting the proponents of these bans, repeatedly stated that we need to, “use the power of government to get people to ‘do the right thing”. It should frighten every person in our community to know that one group of people is trying to influence the County government to force their economic and lifestyle choices on to you. What will be next?
The problem with banning shopping bags, straws and Styrofoam are many. First, the alternatives to these things are much worse. Paper bags and straws take much more energy to produce and while they can be composted, Los Alamos does not currently have composting services available to residents. Unless you compost at home on your own, those items go right into the waste stream. There are many alternatives to Styrofoam as well. Plastic containers can be recycled if they are washed properly – but will they be by restaurant staff or patrons? If not, into the trash they go. Vegetable based Styrofoam alternatives are meant to be composted, but again Los Alamos does not have composting services. You’ve just swapped one thing for another in the bin – what good has a ban done? Second, your “single use” plastic shopping bag actually has many re-uses. These bags have a 90% reuse rate, everyone reuses them! In Los Alamos County you still have to bag your garbage, why not leave the option to reuse your shopping bag as a garbage bag, or a bag to pick up pet waste, instead of having to buy thicker 4 gallon garbage bags (the smallest size of garbage bag manufactured). For any unused bags you might have, Smith’s provides bins in which you can recycle any bag or plastic films, free of charge. We know that in cities around the country with shopping bag bans the purchase rate of 4 gallon bags has gone up exponentially. Litter and pet waste also increases in public spaces in these areas – as people no longer have the option to reuse their store shopping bag as a garbage bag.
Third, there are also the costs to businesses to consider. Is it right for the County government, at the behest of a small group of vocal activists and high school students, to force businesses to change their set up, ordering and supplies, and the services businesses offer their customers? Most bag and Styrofoam alternatives are considerably more expensive for a business. For some businesses every penny counts, and having to spend 10-20-50 cents more per transaction on packaging might break them. I’m not ok with using the “power of government to get people to, ‘do the right thing” if it means depriving someone of their livelihood. Finally, in regard to a ban or tax on shopping bags, it would create a special “class” and would violate the state Constitution’s anti-donation clause to impose any fee or tax. To override this provision in the Constitution, you have to petition the legislature, or hold a special election in town. Los Alamos has bigger issues on its plate right now.
I could go on presenting statistics and studies on why bag bans, straw bans and Styrofoam bans are bad. The supporters of these bans can hurl back their own data to contradict me. We could go on like that forever – so let’s not. But for me, and others who oppose these bans, it comes down to the option to have our choices remain in tact. The government should not be used as a weapon by a small group of people to force others to conform to their lifestyle and economic choices. Our community is a better place when individuals and businesses are fee to make our own economic and environmental choices and free to exercise stewardship of the earth in our own way. Los Alamos has always been a very open community, in that we let our neighbors live their own lives without intrusion. More and more, I see that fading away, as activists, driven by emotion and hysteria try and force their lifestyle on others.
Once and for all, let’s put these types of bans to rest and stop insisting the County government use its power to force the choices of one group on the rest of us. For the members of Save Los Alamos (formerly Save the Bag Los Alamos), this has always been the heart of this issue and will continue to be. For the last four years we have worked to educate people on these issues. We have changed a lot of minds instead of forcing government on people. I’m asking those of you that do not support bans of these types to please attend Council meetings and voice your opinions, or write to the County Council (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Environmental Sustainability Board (email@example.com). If you do not make your voice heard it will be drowned out by a noisy few, and you and our local businesses will be left without options.