The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: In the Bag

The question you won't hear in Austin anymore: 'paper or plastic?'

By Amy Smith, March 1, 2013, News

Austin may not be the first city in Texas to ban "single-use" bags, but it's the first to get thumped with a lawsuit over the new ordinance, which goes into effect Friday, March 1.

The Texas Retailers Association on Monday filed a lawsuit claiming Austin's bag ban violates a section of the state health and safety code, which prohibits municipalities from restricting the bags "for solid waste management purposes." The lawsuit cites the ordinance's express language to back up its claim – that the "successful reduction of single-use carryout bags entering the city's solid waste stream ... will help the city achieve its goal of 'Zero Waste' by the year 2040." The city has not yet responded to the suit.

TRA President Ronnie Volkening said the group is not seeking an immediate injunction and is advising its members to comply with the ordinance while the case is pending. "We're asking the court for clarity," he said. The lawsuit further states that retailers will be harmed because customers will head to stores outside the city and that in-city stores will likely pass on increased costs to customers to offset additional costs.

While the trade group views the new law as a lose-lose proposition, local enviros see a win-win all around when weighed against the damage wrought by single-use bags, especially the lightweight plastic variety. "We are talking about hundreds of millions of [single-use] bags a year that are given out right now in Austin – this costs us as taxpayers," said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. "We don't see the costs at the register, but we pay for it through our tax dollars, and the environment pays for it every day in incalculable costs."

Single-Use Bag Woes

Austinites pay for the damage, Schneider went on, when plastic bags jam up the recycling machinery, clog storm water drains, litter the roadways, and attach themselves to tree limbs, requiring frequent cleanups. "We pay for all of that," she said. "It's impossible to get away from – in fact, any corner of the globe that has not taken progressive action on these single-use bags has these same issues." (The new law exempts some single-use bags for certain food items and dry cleaning operations.)

I must confess that I was slow to jump on the bag-ban bandwagon, for two reasons: First, like many other people, I make – er, used to make – good reuse of the so-called single-use bags. And from a personal perspective, I viewed the plastic bag hoopla as a clever political distraction, conveniently popping up at a time when the community was engaged in a fierce debate about the need for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 (a question that persists today, even in its nearly completed state). So there was some petty resistance on my part, but I've since come around.

If Texas supermarket giant H-E-B is showing any resistance, you wouldn't know it by their marketing campaign alerting shoppers about big bag changes ahead. This weekend, they'll be giving away "hundreds of thousands" of reusable bags at all their H-E-B stores in Austin. Some enviros were a little peeved at the city for allowing stores to apply for a one-year "emergency option," by which customers who forget their reusable bags can pay $1 (per transaction) for as many single-use bags as they need to haul their groceries home. So far, H-E-B is the only retailer to apply for and receive the "last-resort" option. While company spokeswoman Leslie Sweet says the chain would prefer "voluntary compliance" in place of a mandatory ordinance, H-E-B was nonetheless able to respond perhaps more quickly than others because of the lessons learned from their stores in Brownsville, the first city in the state to enact bag restrictions, followed by South Padre Island and Fort Stockton.

Switching to cloth bags or bags that can withstand 100 uses is not all that difficult, Schneider insists. "It's only in the last few decades that we've been accustomed to getting free bags." As new bag laws have taken effect in other countries and in cities across the U.S., people adapted and moved on with their lives, she said. "That's what we're going to be doing here in Austin."

Tonight (Thursday, Feb. 28) the Austin Zero Waste Alliance will hold a "Bag to the Future" party to celebrate the new bag ban ordinance. 7-10:35pm at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, 1400 E. 38½th.

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