It’s complicated: Ban on plastic grocery bags in Santa Fe hits snags


TANGLED UP IN PLASTIC: This sign outside a Santa Fe grocery store bids farewell to plastic bags but the citywide ban is proving difficult to implement. NM Watchdog photo.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — In a town that pats itself on the back for environmental sensitivity, a ban on plastic bags in grocery stores in Santa Fe seemed pretty straightforward.

But implementing the program has become harder than anticipated.

“I hate to say it, but I told you so,” Santa Fe city councilor Ron Trujillo told his colleagues Wednesday, the night before the ban on polyethylene bags was supposed to go into effect.

As originally planned, as of midnight Feb. 27, grocery stores weren’t supposed to give customers plastic carry-out bags less than 2 1/2 mils thick.

But the ban has run into a series of problems since the City Council voted in August to ditch the plastic. The ban began after advocates said Santa Fe needed to get on the green bandwagon and join cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif.

First, a hassle has come up over a 10-cent, per-bag fee, which customers would be charged if they did not bring in their own reusable bags.

As the ordinance was designed, if customers tried to check out without their own bags, the store would put the groceries in a paper bag and charge the shopper 10 cents each.

But the Santa Fe City Attorney has questioned whether the 10-cent fee amounts to an illegal tax, and there are worries the fee could be challenged in court, which could lead to undetermined legal costs for the city.

“Who’s to say this (10-cent fee) isn’t going to cost the city a lot more down the road?” Trujillo said at Wednesday night’s council meeting, which dragged on for six hours.

Second, some complain the plastic bag ban is unfair because restaurants are exempt, as are nonprofits that serve the needy. In addition, grocery stores can still use plastic bags for meat, produce and bakery items.

At 11 p.m., bleary-eyed city councilors, in a 7-1 vote, decided to split the plastic bag baby in half: They’ll go ahead with the ban but will postpone enforcement of the 10-cent per-bag ban for at least one month.

The decision doesn’t satisfy Dena Aquilina, the general manager of Beneficial Farms, a group that works “only with farms that use sustainable farming methods,” according to its website.

“The real goal of this ordinance was for people to bring reusable, washable bags,” Aquilina told the Santa Fe New Mexican before the vote. “Just switching to paper (bags) doesn’t really solve the problem.”

In the meantime, different grocery stores in the city are using their own policies.

A spokesman for Albertson’s supermarkets said it won’t use plastic bags anymore, but it will give shoppers free paper bags.

Phil Wofford, a manager at Trader Joe’s near downtown Santa Fe, told New Mexico Watchdog his store has already discarded plastic grocery bags and does not charge for paper bags. Wofford says if the city requires the 10-cent fee, the store would comply. “We’ve got it set up in our computers, we’re just waiting to hear from the city,” he said.

Santa Fe bought 10,000 reusable bags to hand out to residents and launched a campaign and website called “Bag to Differ Santa Fe,informing people about the plan.

How much has the campaign and the purchase of the 10,000 reusable bags cost taxpayers? That’s a good question, but four phone calls to the city’s public information officer have gone unreturned.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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