Leffingwell's Got It in the Bag

City to look at sacking petroleum grocery bags.

Continuing the welcome trend of simple environmental changes citizens can make (like the city-endorsed switch to fluorescent bulbs), City Council Member Lee Leffingwell's got questions about grocery bags. Not paper or plastic, mind you – how's biodegradable or not? This week, Leffingwell has an item creating a 90-day study period in which to rethink local grocers' reliance on nonbiodegradable, petroleum-based grocery bags. Recently, San Francisco banned the buggers, citing their detrimental environmental impact. While Austin won't likely go that far (if only), Leffingwell intends to look at ways of limiting their use or incorporating more environmentally friendly (i.e., compostable) containers.

Here's the press release:

Austin, Texas - The Austin City Council will consider a resolution this week that could lead to new strategies for reducing waste from non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic bags by stores located in the city. Sponsored by City Council Member Lee Leffingwell, City Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Will Wynn, the resolution directs city management to analyze and recommend strategies for addressing the environmental impacts of hundreds of thousands of plastic bags that are discarded in Austin each year.

"In Austin, we truly care about protecting our environment, both locally and globally," said Council Member Leffingwell, who authored the resolution. "If we can find ways to significantly reduce the use of non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic bags in Austin stores, we'll not only be doing our own community a big favor, but we'll also be setting an example that could make a meaningful difference for the future of our global environment if it were followed by other cities and states around the country."

Leffingwell said the Council resolution, if passed, won't immediately create a new policy but simply initiate a 90-day process to analyze and recommend possible strategies for limiting the use of plastic bags in the city. "We have already begun a dialogue with a number of grocers in the area and grocery trade associations nationally and the response to our approach has been very positive. We want to have a dialogue with all interested parties to see what strategies will work best," said Leffingwell. "Undoubtedly there will be some opposition to any proposal, whether from some grocers who could have to pay more to switch to paper or compostable plastic bags, or from petroleum interests and plastics manufacturers that stand to lose some revenue, or from individual shoppers who just like the convenience of using plastic bags. Regardless, we want to hear from everyone before we get to the hard work of crafting a policy that will, we hope, represent another small step toward protecting our unique local quality of life while also making a difference in the larger world around us."

"This is an issue that affects all Austinites," said Council Member Martinez. "I look forward to this dialogue, and a larger dialogue about how we can all do our part, consumers and retailers alike, to find creative ways to make Austin better and cleaner, while promoting awareness during our everyday purchases."

Introduced in the late 1970s as an alternative to paper bags, plastic bags now account for four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores. "Obviously, plastic bags are cheap, convenient and popular," said Leffingwell. "But when they're discarded, often after just one use, they end up either littering our streets, clogging our sewers, polluting our rivers and lakes, threatening our wildlife, or taking 1,000 years to decompose in our landfills. When you consider that we're also burning massive amounts of fossil fuels to manufacture them, it's tough to defend their few merits."

Plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas, or other petrochemical derivatives, and are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules called polymers or polymer resin. After being heated, shaped, and cooled, the plastic can be flattened, sealed, punched, or printed on. "It takes roughly 430,000 gallons of crude oil to produce 100 million plastic bags," said Leffingwell. "With groups like the Worldwatch Institute estimating that Americans discard as many 100 billion plastic bags each year, we're talking about using tens of millions of gallons of crude annually just to tote our groceries home. It's a small convenience that we pay for in a big way, especially in the context of our ongoing fight for U.S. energy independence and against global warming."

Leffingwell said his office has tracked recent legislative efforts to limit the use of plastic bags in other countries and U.S. states and cities, including an initiative in San Francisco to institute a full ban on all non-compostable plastic bags, and proposed state legislation in New York that contemplates a plastic bag tax.

Countries that have introduced similar bans or taxes on non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic bags include Ireland, Italy, Australia and South Africa. "There is clearly a growing awareness, both here in America and around the world, that we can and should do something about the environmental problems associated with plastic bags," said Leffingwell. "I'm proud that Austin is regarded as a national and even international environmental leader, and I think that it honors our reputation to look at ways to make a change on this issue."

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City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Environment, Plastic, Grocery, bags, petroleum

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