It's Time to Bag the Bags

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You've probably seen the news this week that Mike Martinez, Chris Riley and I are calling for the phase-out of single-use plastic check-out bags in Austin. Our resolution will be taken up at the next Council meeting, on August 4th.

Single-use plastic bags are both harmful to the environment and costly to our economy.

They create litter in our rivers and streams, they're harmful to wildlife, they're produced by petroleum products and because they are not biodegradable, they are around forever.

Single-use plastic bags also cost Austin taxpayers a significant amount of money. In fact, Austinites use about 263 million plastic bags annually, costing the city about $850,000 per year for collection, litter clean-up, landfill management and recycling contamination. This figure does not include the cost to our environment.

We've been working on this effort for almost 5 years now, since my first term on the Council.  During that time, we've engaged a wide array of stakeholders – retailers, environmentalists, plastic bag manufacturers, small business owners and more – to try to come up with voluntary, market-based solutions.

Though we made some headway with voluntary efforts and pilot programs, the results simply did not produce the success we were looking for.  We've tried everything we can think of to reduce the number of plastic bags that enter our waste stream.We had a voluntary “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” program in effect for 18 months from 2008-2009, with 6 major retailers participating (Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, Walgreens, HEB and Randalls).

During this effort, retailers were encouraged to sell affordable reusable bags in their stores, provide on-site recycling of plastic bags, and provide educational signage in and around their stores. The goal of a 50% reduction in bags sent to the landfill was not met, but they did achieve a reduction of 20%.

The City also tried a pilot program of curbside collection of plastic bags, but it was not cost effective. Plastic bags cannot be put into our single stream recycling system and therefore needed a separate truck for collection. Paper bags, on the other hand, can be made with recycled paper and recycled again via our single-stream system.

Our resolution calls on the City Manager to conduct a stakeholder process and develop an ordinance to bring back to Council this November. Concerned citizens and affected businesses will have a chance to help shape the timeline of a phase-out and determine if any exceptions should be made for certain types of businesses or situations.

Bans have been enacted in other cities all over the country and have not turned out to be as controversial or difficult as you might think.  Habits are changing and families are adapting.  Portland, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Brownsville are just a few of the cities that have phased out single-use plastic bags.

I am confident that Austinites will embrace this idea. Most people already have their own reusable bags that they use to shop.  For those who don't, we are encouraging folks to invest a few dollars in a few reusable bags and start getting into the habit of using them.

And hey, if you're still not sold, surely you trust Rolling Stone magazine.

Please don't hesitate to contact us to share any questions or concerns you may have.

Thanks, Lee.

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14 Comments

  1. Bag the Bags!
    Banning the distribution of single use bags is good and timely policy.  Austin has made a commitment to pursuing zero waste, and banning bags is a step in the right direction.

  2. Win Win Win!
    Lee, I'm glad you, Chris and Mike are calling for a phase out of plastic bags! Nearly all of us use plastic bags, and nearly all of us toss at least some of them out (I'm guilty: I don't always remember my reusable bags, and I have more plastic bags than I'll ever use wadded up underneath the sink right now).  The cumulative impact of tossing out plastic bags is big, because each decomposing plastic bag can release poisonous bits and chemicals into soil and groundwater.

    Bagging bags is a sensible way to save money on landfill space and recycling costs, reduce litter and visual blight, and it's good for our environment. Win, win, win!  

  3. Nice.
    Ever since I saw a performance piece at the Salvage Vanguard theater some years ago about how there is an island of trash in ocean that is mostly made up of plastic bags, I have been trying to use them less. Now it looks like Austin can take this serious and be a leader in our country. I do hope this passes, then I will have reason to use all my old sxsw canvass bags!

    http://www.independent.co.uk/e

  4. Proud of Austin
    Living with my brother in DC for a few weeks really opened my eyes to the positive impact banning plastic bags can have on a city.  Parks and roads were cleaner – and buying groceries was as easy as it was before.  Many people who brought their own reusable bags from home took a pride in them – what better way to show Longhorn pride than a reusable tote (or two).  I'm proud that Austin is joining the ranks of forward looking cities that seek to make the small changes that have big results.

  5. Proud of Austin
    Once again I find myself in the position of bragging on my beloved city.  I am so proud of our council for taking action (and not just a stance as many do) on this important environmental issue.  

    I think our city is definitely evolved enough to handle such a positive change in our community.  Change is never easy but it sure can do good things!  

    Next up, Dallas?

    God Bless Austin!

  6. Time is Running Out
    Thank you! Without the tireless efforts of a tremendous coalition of environmental activists, grassroots organizations, and public officials, the Mayor's announcement today would not have been possible.

    And what better reminder of how little time we have left to halt and reverse the ravages of years of dependence on fossil fuels than the extreme weather we have been seeing worldwide for years?  Single use plastic bags require enormous amounts of oil to produce and take up significant space in landfills that cost more and more when budgets are tighter and tighter.  The time is now.

  7. Kudos to the Lee and Co.
    for making a responsible decision that represents the best interest of the people.

    One often feels helpless in resolving (or limiting) the horrific consequences of a society driven by consumption.  It seems that many segments of society no longer question why we are doing something – we simply do it.  I admittingly (with apparently not enough guilt to change course) keep saying “plastic” at the grocery store.  Why? Becuase I can.  My decision to do such is selfish and lazy, and I'm happy with the government forcing my hand a bit.  That's what good government should do, as every now and then I need someone to shove me in the right direction.  

    What will I do in a post-plastic bag word? I'm taking a wild guess that I'll be able to figure it out.  As will others.      

    Thanks again for spearheading a noble effort.  

  8. Austin should lead on bagging plastic bags
    Thanks to the Mayor for leading on this effort.  I am glad the city took the voluntary approach at the beginning so we could see how effective it would be.  I think the city should take the next step on this critical issue.  Austin needs to stand out as a leader on as many green issues as possible and it takes forward thinking leaders willing to educate and persuade the public to make real change happen.    

  9. garbage bags
    We use the plastic grocery store bags for garbage, and we're always running out. Under this law we'd have to start buying plastic bags for garbage. I guess most folks don't reuse their grocery bags though.

    • Buying bags is a good thing
      Numerous studies (and economic common sense) show that if you have to buy bags, then you're far more likely to use them judiciously and efficiently.  When you're receiving dozens of single-use, petroleum-based bags a week for free, inevitably people end up throwing away at least some portion of them without reuse, simply because there are so many, and it doesn't cost you anything (no visible cost at least – the fiscal impact of plastic bags is several cents per bag per taxpayer).

      Purchased bags are also thicker and heavier duty as a general rule.  This means they are less likely to break and go to waste, and they can often be recycled with the regular plastics in the standard recycling stream.  Single-use bags require an entirely separate recycling infrastructure because they are so thin.

  10. Great idea
    This is an excellent policy.  Sometimes it takes the government coming in and making people change their habits, especially when it comes to pollution.

    I used to use plastic bags for groceries until a few years ago when I got some canvas bags when this initiative started.  I just needed to change my habit to have canvas bags around and now that I have, it's not any harder than it was before.   It's actually easier because I can carry more in each bag and they are sturdier.  

    The only exception I can think of where plastic bags should still be allowed are some goods that can be messy and have juices, like meats.  That's only a small portion of what plastic bags are currently used for, though.  And those should be taxed to insure that people actually need them.

  11. Interfaith Enviromental Network of Austin
    Thanks Mayor. The “IEN” supports doing this and more. Our group's statement:

    “Interfaith Environmental Network of Austin (IEN) supports the passage of a city ordinance requiring the ban of single-use bags.  IEN further calls on the City of Austin to incorporate this ordinance in the city's Zero Waste Master Plan, and to develop a mechanism for directing solid waste disposal cost savings secured by the ordinance to a program to make reusable bags available to low-income Austin residents.”

    Please consider.

    > Blog about our endorsement of the Central Texas Zero Waste Alliance resolution to ban paper & plastic: http://interfaithenvironment.o

    > IEN website: http://interfaithenvironment.org/

  12. There are two very different environmental impacts
    The environmental impact of bags is 2-fold: the resources they use in making them, and the problem of disposing of them.

    On the disposal side, plastic bags are bad news. They are rarely recycled, and we use a huge number of them, while paper bags are easily recycled. So if the main issue is landfill space, or if you're worried about wildlife being choked by plastic, then banning plastic bags makes a lot of sense.

    On the resource side, however, plastic bags are pretty darn good. A paper bag weighs a lot more than a plastic bag of the same capacity, and making paper generates a lot of pollution. If banning single-use plastic just means switching to single-use paper, then it's a terrible waste of resources.

    Of course, the right answer is to move away from single-use bags, period. If you're only buying a couple of small items, stick them in your pocket. If you're making a big shopping run, bring reusable bags. And if you do get bags, whether paper or plastic, find a second use for them.

    Bottom line: if banning plastic bags will seriously encourage people to use fewer bags, then I'm all for it. But if people don't change their habits, and just use one material instead of another, then the ban will be counterproductive.  

    • Also need a solution for produce bags
      I use my canvas bags all the time for groceries, but it bugs me to bring them home filled with a half dozen plastic produce bags.

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