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.