Austin is ending its ban on free single-use plastic bags at stores and restaurants after a state Supreme Court ruling against a similar ban in Laredo. But repealing the ordinance, commonly known as the “bag ban,” doesn't mean every store will start handing them out again.
“In Austin, where people shop their environmental values, I think large retailers are going to continue the policy of not giving away single-use plastic bags for free,” says Rick Cofer, one of the people who spearheaded the bag ban while serving on what was then called the Solid Waste Advisory Commission.
At least in the short term, his prediction is holding true. H-E-B, which sells reusable bags, says it will “thoughtfully evaluate the issue to ensure we’re making the best decisions for our customers and the communities we serve.”
Randall’s issued a similar statement. Fiesta Mart continues to sell reusable bags, though it has not replied to a request for comment.
Ranch 88 and MT Supermarket also told KUT they were not giving out single-use bags. Other grocers like Trader Joes and Whole Foods have long had policies that complied with the “bag ban” and are expected to continue with them.
That’s not to say disposable plastic bags aren’t returning to Austin. Convenience stores seem to be re-introducing them. After all, whatever their downside, the bags are convenient.
So, why convenience stores but not big grocery stores? It could be that selling reusable bags has turned into good business in Austin.
“Large retailers are going to do what they think is best for the bottom line in a particular market,” Cofer says.
It's unknown how much Austin stores have made by selling reusable bags. But similar bans in other cities have shown it can be lucrative. A small fee on plastic bags in Dallas that lasted only about five months brought in around $500,000 to a city environmental program.
In California, an analysis found requiring stores to sell reusable bags brought in "tens of millions of dollars."
It stands to reason that Austin’s supermarkets are interested in keeping that revenue coming, though they may still opt to go back to disposable bags.
“That’s what happened in Dallas,” says Corey Troiani, who worked on Dallas’s short-lived bag ordinance with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We had stores that were immediately putting [single-use] bags back in the checkout counters. And we went right back to the status quo.”
Daniel Collins contributed reporting to this story.