By Zoe Hemez
Los Alamos High School Eco Club
I belong outside. Born and raised in Los Alamos by two trail-loving parents, I’ve been exploring the canyons, mesas and mountains surrounding me for as long as I can remember.
The sunshine, clear air, and sense of absolute freedom keep drawing me back to the trails no matter how exhausted, busy or sunburnt I may be. One of my favorite aspects of the outdoors, however, is the people I find there. Nothing seems to give me more satisfaction than smiling hello to an unknown passerby on a trail and being greeted with the same warmth in return. Nowhere else in the world have I encountered so many people in one town who shared the same level of appreciation for the outdoors as Los Alamos residents do.
Which is why, when my friend Kevin Parkinson and I decided to advocate for a plastic-bag fee in Los Alamos County, I wasn’t too worried. Who could be opposed to such legislation? The consequences of trash pollution in Los Alamos couldn’t be more obvious. Even in areas miles away from roads and buildings, evidence of human presence can be found. In fact, much of my time outdoors today is spent picking up aluminum cans, candy wrappers, and broken glass bottles. In a community where so many residents feel strongly about the preservation of their trails, rallying public support couldn’t be difficult. Or so we thought.
Our bag-fee initiative began in late April, when we attended a forum organized by the League of Women Voters to allow community members to meet candidates for the County Council election. By taking this measure, we hoped to be better informed on how the county government would respond to our demands, allowing us to organize our movement to be as efficient as possible.
Later, we created an online petition in support of a 10-cent plastic-bag fee in Los Alamos stores, on which we need 1,000 signatures. Now, we’re continuing to make our demands known by attending Environmental Sustainability Board meetings, collaborating with the Zero Waste Board and spreading the word of our cause.
Although our petition is steadily accumulating signatures, I am struck every day by how difficult it has been to gain support within the community. When we discussed the initiative with County Council candidates, for instance, many still offered the same response: “Los Alamos isn’t ready for a bag fee, so for now we should focus on educating the town.”
However, time has shown that education simply isn’t effective in reducing the consumption of single-use plastic bags. In 2014, a similar initiative to ours was presented to County Council, but, in the end, did not pass. Since then, activists have been working hard to promote a more sustainable lifestyle within the community to no avail. In the five years since the last movement against plastic bags, consumption of disposable items such as straws, cups, and, of course, bags has remained unchanged.
The contradiction between what people believe and how they act has proved to be very frustrating to me and the other students I am working with.
While so many people in Los Alamos are outwardly appreciative of the environment that surrounds them, at their core they are far more devoted to the plastic bags they use to carry their groceries home. Even though the consequences of disposable plastic items are glaring and undeniable, the town is reluctant to forgo the convenience they provide. I believe that this period of hesitation is over, and people must make a change now if they want to have any chance of reaping the benefits later.
Over the past few weeks, it has become all too apparent that implementing a plastic-bag fee in Los Alamos will be far more difficult than I expected. Many of my community members are skeptical that such a policy is worth the effort, and I can understand why. After all, in a world where 240,000 plastic bags are consumed every 10 seconds, what difference will it make for one small town to introduce a measly 10-cent fee?
What so many people don’t realize is that the successful implementation of such a fee does not represent the end of a campaign by a handful of high-school students, but rather the beginning of an environmental movement in which the entire community can partake. When shoppers realize how little effort is required to bring reusable bags to the store, they will start making other small changes in their lifestyles. Eventually, Los Alamos residents will become more conscious of the trash they produce, the energy they consume, and the impact their lifestyles have on the planet. Our clean water will become cleaner, our crisp air crisper, and our wonderful trails even more wonderful.
In a few months, I will be starting a new life in college. Despite being nervous about leaving home, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to continue voicing my opinion in an entirely new location.
My experience in Los Alamos and everything I’ve learned from it have shaped me into a more efficient and determined activist. I can’t wait to get to work, and, most importantly, to discover all the trails the world has to offer and the people I will meet on them.
You can sign the petition here.
Zoe Hemez is outgoing co-president of the Los Alamos High School EcoClub. She serves the Zero Waste Subcommittee of Los Alamos County until she leaves for college.