Albuquerque City Council

Repeal of Plastic Bag Ban a Call to Action for Civic Service

It’s not the government’s job to keep your community clean

The Albuquerque City Council’s vote to repeal the plastic bag ban was controversial and disappointing for the dozens of residents who spoke out in favor of the ordinance Monday. They made passionate pleas about the health effects of plastics and the plight of trash littering their communities.

But there is a silver lining to the revocation, even for those who believe society is better off without plastic bags.

While government plays an important role in curbing crime and building community infrastructure, more individual freedom is never the wrong answer, and lobbying the government to clean up our communities sends the wrong message to our kids.

Albuquerque is not (yet) Los Angeles or San Fransisco, and keeping it from a dystopian future of trash-filled streets starts with a change in mindset. It’s not the government’s job to keep your community clean, and if you need an example of how government bans don’t work, remember that Los Angeles and San Fransisco both already ban plastic bags. 

Los Angeles, left. San Fransisco, right. Both ban plastic bags. Both are covered in trash.

Teaching kids that government is the solution to community problems is teaching them to pass the buck when they could be taking responsibility.

Not a single person who spoke at the City Council meeting mentioned their personal efforts to clean up their communities. They spoke about global pollution and the ills of plastics. They claimed the ban worked, that their parks and streets and neighborhoods were cleaner as a result — despite the ban only being in effect for less than three months (it was paused in March 2020).

For Conservatives, cleaning up other people’s trash is a moral Catch-22. On the one hand, you don’t want to live in filth. On the other, you don’t want to clean up messes you didn’t make. I battled this oxymoron living on the West Side last year. The local park was littered with trash, wrappers, water bottles, and yes, plastic bags. I was reluctant to do anything about it because it wasn’t my trash, and doing for others what they could do for themselves is morally reprehensible. 

But I talked myself out of it. To live in society is to accept that there will always be bad actors, and increasing government bureaucracy doesn’t stop it. There will always be people who litter, and doing nothing about it accomplishes exactly that: nothing. And so, faced the conundrum of cleaning up other people’s messes or living with it, I chose the former. 

It took surprisingly less effort than I thought it would. As the kids played on the jungle gym, I walked the park and filled a bag with trash. It took two trips to the park before I ran out of trash to pick up. 

And I’m one man.

Imagine what Albuquerque would look like if just one person on every city block took an evening walk once a week and collected trash. Imagine how beautiful the city would be if the kids lobbying the local government to ban plastic bags took it upon themselves to clean their own communities.

The lesson it teaches isn’t only one of activism. It teaches them how to be stewards of the land and leaders of their communities. Their efforts would not only be personally satisfying but would have a compounding effect — people are less likely to litter in a clean park than they are in one that is already disgusting.

And that’s just the beginning. Picking up trash is reactive. Preventing it is proactive. 

Rather than complaining that the city isn’t doing enough, encourage your kids to be “the change they want to see in the world.” Buy them a sewing machine to make reusable bags and hand them out or sell them online. Buy garbage can lid locks to prevent trash from blowing down the street and go door to door with your kids to sell them to neighbors. They will not only meet neighbors and spread their environmental message; it also teaches them the basics of commerce.

For the adults in the room, the same message applies. 

Ashley McKenna spoke during the public comments, saying that she started the bag ban petition in 2019 “because in my mental health agency I saw an increase of people who are hopeless about the world, ready to end their lives, increasing crime, mental health, and drug addiction in our city.” 

A plastic bag ban does not prevent suicide, let alone crime or mental health problems or drug addiction. But taking action can. Engaging in the community can. Making the world a better place can.

People don’t find purpose in life from city government prohibitions. Purpose comes from contributing to something greater than themselves, by dedicating their time and effort to something they believe in, and by doing meaningful work that serves a cause greater than individual sustenance. 

During a Feb. 21, 2022 sermon on 1 Samuel titled “Your Role Matters,” Pastor Collin Brooks talked about searching for one’s spiritual gift. He pushed back on the notion of finding your gift and then putting it to work, arguing that this is backward thinking.

“I think most people learn their gifts through exercising,” he said. “You don’t learn and then get to work, you get to work and then you learn.”*

The lesson here applies inside and outside of church.

We spend so much time looking at problems that are outside our control and too little effort doing something about those within it.

Councilor Louie Sanchez opened the debate against the plastic bag ban by saying, “We need to get on with the real issues that are plaguing our city” —namely crime. And he’s right. There is a role for government, but its role is not best served doing for communities what communities can do for themselves.

Litter and the use of plastic bags are problems each and every one of us can solve, and taking steps to solve them individually is more rewarding personally and more effective across the community than any government prohibition could ever hope to be.

That is activism. 

* “As you give yourself to the Church, as you give yourself to members and you spend time serving and loving and helping, over time what ends up happening is you start to realize the things you really enjoy doing. You start to realize the things you’re good at. Sometimes, yeah ‘I tried to help there, I tried to serve there and it didn’t really work.’ That’s okay. ‘Okay, I’m not fit for that job.’ But you get to work. You pour yourself out to the Church, and over time the Spirit begins to reveal to you what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. So you don’t need to learn your gift and then get to work, you just need to get to work. And you will find things that you’re passionate about, things you’re good at. So just serve the Church. And here’s the best thing about this practice. Let’s say the Lord never reveals it to you. You go to your grave not knowing your spiritual gift. Guess what you just did? You just lived a life serving the Church.”

 — Pastor Collin Brooks, Resisting the Winds

3 replies »

  1. Thanks for fine reminder. I reuse bags well before the bag ban but often forgot and the plastic carrier bags had many other uses in my home. The thicker bags were not so useful and as they wear out will go to the recycle bin. But I do know paper costs a bit more and know that price is added into my bill.

    Make your own bed is a fine mantra besides a book tittle. Kids (and we) need to respect our environment. Good on you for doing what we all should.

    • Society would benefit by living personally how they believe all men should live (Categorical Imperative). Too many people shrug off hanging laundry or biking to work or planting a garden because the contribution is too small to matter–which it is, but it’s by doing it and inspiring one or two others to join you that change is possible. Government is not the answer for most things.

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