Photo of plastic bags as trash for the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter website

By Jody Benson, Pajarito Group newsletter editor

After 21 months of strategizing, communicating with the local government and Krogers Corporate, after research, meetings, letter-writing, public presentations, and op-editorializing — after addressing the SavetheBaggers’ issues by changing our request from a bag ban to a per-bag charge that would have given all of us, environmentalists and free-choice consumers alike, pretty much what we wanted (you want a bag, you can have it; just pay the merchant’s cost) — after all this, the effort to reduce distribution of free single-use plastic shopping bags in Los Alamos has failed to advance.

As with every other undertaking requiring a behavioral change (no matter how insignificant), the attempt to Ban the Bag has smacked against the wall of opposition built with bricks of misunderstanding and simple obdurateness. The arguments for keeping a free single-use plastic shopping bag are numerous and noble: I need it for garbage and the dog; a bag ban would kill retail and tourism; even Greenpeace says bags aren’t a problem; it’s government interference; you’re infringing on consumer choice; the majority of people want the bag; educate not legislate. “The plastic bag is the last bastion of freedom.” And. “I don’t want to be arrested for walking out of a store with a plastic bag.”

We know from Smiths statistics that almost 50 percent of people of Los Alamos already choose to act responsibly and bring their own bags (4.5 bags per person per week vs. the national average of 9.2). But a small cadre of people who would rather SavetheBag than the environment is much more vehement and vocal than the Pajarito Group. And they won this round.

Here’s what happened:
The almost 50 percent who support bringing their own bags did not take the small political action required to convince the Environmental Sustainability Board. The one teeny action was to go to the County’s Open Forum and click the button supporting the ban or reduction.

We didn’t succeed because we didn’t show up.

On that County Forum, 80 percent of respondents insisted that they, capitalism, and democracy would be irreparably harmed if the merchant charged 10 cents for a bag (this is not hyperbole). At the Council and ESB meetings, the pro-baggers made the same statements, with one even insisting that charging for bags would create a communist state replete with government minders.

The vote at the ESB was a tie, 3-3. The board still has to make a recommendation to the County Council, likely on July 16. This is a chance for us to show up and show support for a ban ban or fee. Two of the Board members stated that they wanted the ban or fee, but they regretfully voted against it because that was the will of the majority. (To this support, albeit not a vote, the pro-baggers said there shouldn’t be so many environmentalists on the Board.)

Even though each board member had been assigned a sector of businesses to interviewon how a ban or fee would harm business—and even though the majority of businesses said either would have little effect—the Board still voted on behalf of those who responded negatively on the Forum and who threatened to sue if a bag charge was initiated because there were more of them than of us.

(One merchant stated that a ban or fee wouldn’t affect him, but if a customer “pitched a fit,” he’d give the guy a bag. From the audience came the shout, “I’d pitch a fit,” to which others added, “Me too.”)

The vocal minority showed up. We didn’t.

Lesson learned:
Change takes hard work, lots of time, and commitment. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t. If those who want to protect the environment aren’t committed to the time and work it takes to accomplish the desired protections — if we don’t show up to give decision-makers support in making difficult decisions — then decision-makers will usually go with the vocal majority no matter the consequences to the well-being of the true majority.

The Status Quo-ers showed up. We did not.

Some good news: since the vote, people have expressed astonishment that the ESB, previously so supportive, refused to recommend approval to the Council. These Save-the-Environmenters say “it ain’t over yet,” and that they’re ready to get involved as soon as we start leading the next effort.

A new effort will take time. It will take commitment and new strategy, but reducing bag use must happen simply because life can’t support their impact anymore. Remember how long it took to ban smoking in enclosed spaces like restaurants and office buildings? Forty-three years: from 1964 when the surgeon general designated cigarettes as cancer-causing, to June 2007 when New Mexico banned smoking in enclosed public spaces in order to protect nonsmokers — 42 years of fighting for something that almost no one now opposes.

The first bag law, the PlasTax in Ireland, only went into effect in 2002, and that year plastic bag use was reduced between 90% and 95%. California voted to ban the bag statewide in 2014, but plastic bag manufacturers sued the state (as the Status Quo-ers threatened to do in Los Alamos).

Changing the status quo toward a view for a healthier future takes strong leadership. But leaders won’t lead until they know they not only have a bunch of us to watch their backs, but just as many to make the way safe ahead. As we regroup, restrategize, and recommit, we must remember that those fighting against change show up and “pitch a fit.” It’s time for us to do the same.
Featured photo by Zainub Razvi

No bag ban for Los Alamos — yet