It's Official: Bring Your Own Bags

The long campaign to ban the bags comes to fruition

Bag Monster Chris Yardy calls attention to City Council's vote to ban plastic bags in retail stores.
"Bag Monster" Chris Yardy calls attention to City Council's vote to ban plastic bags in retail stores. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

"This is time for you folks to make history," Texas Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Robin Schneider told City Council just after midnight last Thursday. After two hours of subsequent discussion, a visibly exhausted council voted 7-0 to implement a ban on single-use retail bags – both plastic and paper – beginning in March 2013. The decision followed roughly five years of an environmental campaign, including a city-sponsored pilot recycling program to determine whether major retailers could cut the flow of plastic bags into the waste stream by 50% – the six chains involved achieved only a 20% reduction.

In the end, the city's Resource Recovery Department recommended not only that retail-distributed plastic bags be prohibited, but that single-use paper bags – a major cause of deforestation and carrying an even greater carbon footprint than plastic – also be banned, in favor of reusable bags brought by customers or sold by retailers. That was effectively the ordinance adopted on all three readings by council, although there remain some minor adjustments to be accomplished either by amendment (i.e., a sustainability standard for reusable paper bags) or by additional "rule-making" discussion with staff – in particular, whether an "emergency access fee" might be charged by some retailers for bag purchase during a to-be-determined "transitional period."

Although a few speakers complained about the midnight public hearing, there were plenty of citizens' communications this night, building upon several years of preparation. Some charged that a ban would violate an inherent right to "freedom of choice," but Andrew Dobbs of TCE pointed to the enormous environmental cost and damage of the bags and argued, "Nobody's freedom has the right to ruin our commons."

The strongest institutional opposition came from Ronnie Volkening, president of the Texas Retailers Association, who said the city had not fully considered or measured the recycling alternatives. But Leslie Sweet, speaking for the H-E-B grocery chain, said the company's experience in Brownsville (where bags were banned last year) has led it to support an Austin ordinance – and she specifically advocated banning paper bags as well. Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Ged­ert had already made that recommendation in introducing the revised draft ordinance and got no argument from council. (A recent appeal from Bob Gregory of Texas Dispos­al Systems recommending a targeted plastic-bag recycling program got no traction, as it's both untested and not truly recycling – instead using the plastic bags as fuel.)

Sweet also recommended adopting a "transitional fee" of $1 to $1.50 for shoppers who don't bring their own bags – to encourage customer adoption as well as fund an educational campaign – but a proposed amendment to that effect by Bill Spel­man and Chris Riley died 5-2, and the ban itself passed unanimously. With a Bill Oliver-led chorus of "Bring Your Own Bags!" still ringing in the weary air, Leffingwell gaveled the adjournment of a very long council day.

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plastic bag ban, Resource Recovery Department, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Texas Retailers Association, Robin Schneider, Texas Disposal Systems

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