Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley announced a proposal this morning to phase out free plastic bags at retail stores.
They criticized plastic bags for littering rivers and streams, harming wildlife and too often ending up in landfills. Consumers who reuse the bags to carry their lunches to picking up after their pets disagree. At a news conference this morning, Mayor Leffingwell acknowledged it’s going to take some convincing to get people to change their habits.
“To a great degree, it’s going to depend on changing hearts and minds around the city, people believing this is the right thing to do,” Leffingwell said. “This is Austin. I think they will.”
There would be some exceptions. Plastic bags would be allowed for things, such as raw meat and newspaper deliveries. City officials says Austinites use about 260 million plastic bags a year, costing the city $850,000 a year in collection, litter management, and landfill costs.
Stacy Guidry, with Texas Campaign for the environment, supports the ban. But she hopes people don’t opt for paper instead.
“Reusable bags are the best way to go,” Guidry said. “The paper bags actually use more natural resources and have even a bigger carbon footprint and take up even more landfill space, whenever they’re not disposed of properly in the recycling systems than plastic bags”
The Texas Retailers Association is trying to stop a plastic bag ban, saying voluntary efforts are effective. President Ronnie Volkening said Austin retailers are making progress in getting more people to recycle. He pointed to the results of a pilot program in Austin in 2008 and 2009.
“Over that period of time, those participating stores were able to reduce the amount of plastic bags that they were giving away as part of the purchase process by twenty percent,” Volkening said. “We increased the amount of recycled material being brought through the stores and recycled to make new products out of recycled plastic materials by 74 percent.”
Recycled plastic bags are used for all sorts of consumer products, from fencing to deck furniture and more plastic bags. But the city says voluntary efforts by local retailers aren’t going far enough. The city’s single stream recycling program does not accept plastic bags but many stores have a recycling drop off.
Retailers likely would take a hit under a ban. Many would have to cancel or rework contracts with bag makers. Cities such as Brownsville, Texas and San Francisco have already banned “free” plastic bags. Portland, Oregon just voted in such a ban. Austin’s city council is scheduled to consider dumping plastic bags at their August 4 meeting.