BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Council members Tuesday, during their July 7 virtual work session failed to agree after 90 minutes on a proclamation proposed for approval by a subcommittee a year ago in response to a petition to ban plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam containers in the County. The disagreement, however, was not related to whether or not the plastic and Styrofoam items should be banned.
When the petition was presented to Council by community member Ann LePage, a subcommittee consisting of Council vice chair Pete Sheehey, Councilor James Robinson and Councilor Katrina Martin was established. At that time, Councilor David Izraelevitz voted against establishing the subcommittee because he felt the issue should have been referred to the County’s Environmental Sustainability Board and he maintained that opinion at the July 7 meeting. Izraelevitz also questioned whether or not a proclamation was appropriate procedurally rather than a resolution.
Councilor Antonio Maggiore, however, felt the Council should only accept the petition, thank the petitioners and move on.
Councilor Sheehey, who had placed the item on the agenda, proposed thanking the petitioners, particularly the Los Alamos High School Eco Club for bringing attention to the issue. He noted that Council through the FY2021 budget process has taken the following actions:
- The Environmental Sustainability Board, with help from County staff, is expanding their public education campaign on recycling and minimizing food waste and unnecessary use of plastic bags, containers, and straws. This will include engaging with local retailers and restaurants to help them minimize waste of food and plastic materials.
- The County approved funding for washable utensils and trays for use at Los Alamos Public Schools.
- The County approved funding for a feasibility study of food composting that includes evaluating available technologies, costs and benefits. The County is also offering education and equipment to the public for backyard composting.
The proposed proclamation noted that when single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam containers, and plastic straws and cutlery are disposed of, they often contaminate waterways, threaten animal and sea life, and pile up as litter or in increasingly expensive landfills. It stated that Los Alamos disposes of 1,300 tons per year of compostable food waste at a cost of $65,000 per year and that providing single-use items and disposing of single-use items and food waste are significant costs to businesses and the County. It noted that compostable single-use items of all kinds are available, and progress continues in cost reduction of compostables.
The proposed proclamation reads in part:
“If decreased volume of waste, and technologies such as composting, reduce the County’s cost of collection and disposal, the savings will be returned to our citizens and businesses and whereas businesses that promote reusable containers (as allowable under sanitary requirements), and simply ask customers before providing single-use bags or straws, can significantly reduce wasteful use and cost; and whereas when businesses charge explicit fees, such as 5 or 10 cents per bag, for single-use items, customers reduce their use of such items, now therefore …Council … supports and encourages our citizens and local businesses that are moving toward zero waste and substitution of single-use plastics with reusable (when allowable), recyclable, or compostable alternatives; and …the Council encourages all businesses in Los Alamos to do the same, and to consider offering reusable bags (when allowable) for a reasonable cost and enabling customers to reduce the wasteful use of single-use bags, straws and containers”.
Sheehey said the proposed proclamation was not a resolution.
“We’re not setting law in any way but in order to give some finality to our response to the petition, we wanted the Council to vote on this proclamation because it basically says what we’re willing to do and it says what we are not willing to do. I think we should be quite clear. After I introduce this, I am ready if any member of the Council has other ideas, for them to propose a contrary motion but basically the original request was to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam containers. We don’t propose to do that,” Sheehey said.
He said the subcommittee consulted with the Eco Club and numerous businesses in town and that some Eco Club members told them they didn’t mind if people were allowed to have plastic bags but would actually prefer if the County instituted a fee for every bag, plastic or not, because instituting a fee on disposable bags discourages people not to waste and not to use them.
“However, consulting with the County Attorney, it was made clear to us that yes, the County could ban a plastic bag or other items, or it could put a fee on a bag, but a fee is a tax and if we’re going to institute a tax like that, it would require an election. Well, some proponents of the ban/fee said fine let’s have an election. My take in discussing this publicly with Council was that there was not support to either ban bags without a fee or ask for an election to put a fee on it,” Sheehey said.
Sheehey said the proposed proclamation simply announces the Council’s support for citizens and local businesses that are moving towards zero waste and substituting single use plastics with reusable when sanitary situations allow.
“The emphasis we put in our previous actions and we mention the use of composting in this proclamation is that if indeed it’s found that we can go to community composting for both businesses and residences or simply composting for restaurants and local businesses, that potentially offers a substantial savings to the County in disposing of this material,” Sheehey said.
Councilor Robinson noted that Sheehey talked to local businesses, Martin communicated with the public schools and that he himself had spoken to Los Alamos National Laboratory about Styrofoam use at the Lab cafeteria. He said the subcommittee had received some good feedback and felt that one of the best paths forward, while not banning the items as suggeste, was reducing their usage.
Councilor Martin said there may be some confusion about the shift to composting in the proclamation instead of just banning the single-use items, but that long-term composting would have the greatest impact.
Councilor Maggiore asked how many public town hall-type meetings the subcommittee had held, not with “one of the vested interest groups but with the actual community”. Councilor Sheehey admitted that no town hall meetings were held, adding that several times in councilor comments during Council meetings and certainly during Council budget hearings, the issue had been discussed. He felt all the issues had been addressed and a motion was warranted.
Councilor Izraelevitz said he appreciated that the subcommittee had reached out to some important groups. He suggested that the subcommittee all the input they received into a formal document for future councils and groups that would have some permanence.
“It can be important to know what the content of those conversations was so that in the future if this issue comes up again we know how to address it,” he said.
Councilor Sheehey said smaller businesses are under a lot of stress right now but that they get the importance of reducing the use of plastics and Styrofoam.
“We should encourage them. They will move as fast as they can economically and we’re moving in a reasonable way to get this composting facility going. The reason it became more prominent in our response is that I see that as the longer range need of phasing out from plastic bags and plastic containers if all that material can ultimately be composted. That eases the economic strain on everyone if we can do it that way,” he said.
Izraelevitz said he was a little confused when he saw the Council was to consider a proclamation and not a resolution because Council doesn’t typically vote on proclamations. Sheehey said the reason he wanted this proclamation voted on was that it was the dinal piece of the Council’s response to the petition.
“We have already taken three actions and this is the final piece where the Council simply says we do support our businesses and individuals who are trying to minimalize plastic waste and we encourage further action,” Sheehey said.
When Chair Sara Scott called for a motion, Councilor Maggiore again moved that Council thank the petitioners for their petition and take no further action. Councilor Izraelevitz seconded the motion.
Councilor Maggiore said his motion was not an indication of support or lack of support for a bag ban.
“Not only do I feel this is absolutely the wrong time to be tackling it, I find this response to be wholly unresponsive to the actual petition.
“I find this to be nothing more really than self-congratulatory fellation and I don’t think this has any more weight or any more effect than a simple letter to the editor from an individual councilor. I think the original response to the petition a year ago – if this is what we are going to take a year to produce – is something that doesn’t actually respond to the issues raised in the petition. We really have no business bringing this forward and proclaiming something. I feel that we just need to thank the petitioners and take no further action,” Maggiore said.
Izraelevitz said he is supporting Maggiore’s motion but not Maggiore’s reasoning.
“I voted against the original process because I thought that this was an issue that would appropriately be addressed by the Environmental Sustainability Board. I think this would have been a natural item for them to discuss, to have their public input, to reach out to all the different constituencies. I appreciate the hard work that the committee has done in reaching out to the different groups but I feel like it would have been an appropriate use of the mechanisms that we already have to address a proposal such as this. It’s really more for procedural reasons that I support the current motion,” Izraelevitz said.
Councilor Sheehey was clearly unhappy with those comments.
“You, I’m pretty sure voted for the three actions we took at the budget hearings. For you to now say that this proclamation is wholly unresponsive to the petition, just puzzles me, because the three actions we took, although they are not directly moving to a bag ban or fee, respond to the issue of plastic waste and that is why that petition was brought. If you or anyone on the Council is ready to propose a bag ban, a bag fee or an election you’re welcome to do so. The proclamation is presented as the final piece to our reasonable actions in response to that petition. We’re spending County money on the composting study, on utensils to prevent waste of plastics at the schools, on the ESB’s educational work. Those are actions that are directly responsive to the desire of our citizens to minimize the waste of plastic containers and bags. I certainly cannot support this proposal. If this proposal does not pass, I have my own motion I would like to make,” Sheehey said.
Councilor Randy Ryti said he agreed with some of what everybody had said.
“I agree that now probably isn’t the right time to be addressing the ban that was the focus of the citizen petition and I think it’s impractical to get anything on the ballot in November. Plus there have been times when you haven’t been able to use your own reusable bags so it’s a bad time for that. It’s been a bad time to get more public input on this whole process. Usually the proclamations are at the chair’s discretion so it’s kind of odd to vote on language that you had agreed to that you would say is yours,” he said.
Ryti said he felt the committee had gotten some good information and that in the future the Council could look at this and that as the petitioners are very concerned about plastic pollution the Council needs to be taking it seriously.
“The pandemic has told us that we need to do re-sets on lots of things so hopefully we can do a re-set on some of the manufacturing systems we have and have less plastic generated by the producers and not put everything on the consumer on our end. I’m going to support the motion. It can be brought back at some other point in time with more information,” he said.
Councilor James Robinson said when the committee started out over a year ago, it was never the intention to take a year and even with the pandemic that started last March.
“I do think that the logical progression to this discussion was the compostable program. It has not been mentioned on this board that we shouldn’t put another burden on our businesses who already have a hard time. So I felt that this was a happy middle of addressing it in the budget sessions and through this proclamation saying that we applaud these efforts as the pathway we should take through the composting program,” he said. “I understand the urge to toss it to our boards and commissions however, I want to remind them that at the same time as we were contemplating sending them to the Environmental Sustainability Board, they were also doing a Save As You Throw program and were heavily involved in that.”
Robinson said the committee did the best job with the time it had.
“We did as much outreach as we possibly could given the circumstances . I under this is outside the normal process but I still think the committee did a good job and I hope if it fails tonight, that this Council will continue to look into this in a post-COVID world as COVID will sooner or later abate but plastics are around forever. We can’t keep kicking this down the road. We’ve got to sooner or later address it,” he said.
Councilor Katrina Martin asked if the Council would be dropping the issues completely or contemplating taking further action in the future.
“I am wondering if people really don’t believe this is a resolved issue and what people would like to see going forward,” she said.
Maggiore again addressed Sheehey’s comments.
“I prefer to let our actual actions speak for themselves and to not inflate them with words that make them seem bigger or more grandiose than they are. We have taken the steps at a budgetary level and a programmatic level to implement direct changes and I would rather issue a proclamation when those projects to which we have devoted funds and all expressed support for in our budgetary meetings, I would rather let the results of that speak for themselves and not hype them before any results have come in. That’s where I’d like to leave it,” Maggiore said.
Izraelevitz said he thinks the issue of single use bags is important.
“But I want to encourage the use of those technical committees that we have when there is an item which I feel falls into their charter…. Just because we are not taking action as a Council doesn’t mean that the ESB has not, as the proclamation says, done an extensive educational process. I think we have done a lot already and just because we vote the proclamation down doesn’t mean there’s no interest in our community in doing it and if in the future when all this is over and new technologies and markets appear we can revisit it through the ESB,” Izraelevitz said. “This is not the time to do it for all the reasons that have been discussed”
He suggested revisiting the issue in the future if circumstances change but through the ESB which could conduct town halls instead of using a path that was encumbered with forum issues and councilors being very busy.
Ryti felt the proclamation didn’t address the main thing which was banning plastic bag and that it would be better to do it later because not taking on the ban meant not taking action on the petition.
Sheehey refused to back down and made a substitute motion that did not get a second.
Council ended up with a “substitute substitute” motion to thank the petitioners and note that Council had taken the three bulleted actions listed above. The vote, after more than 90 minutes, was 6-1 with Councilors Maggiore voting no.