Austin Plastic Bag Ban FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Austin’s Single-Use Check-out Bag Ban 

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Central Texas Zero Waste Alliance recently created this FAQ for those interested in better understanding issues and solutions related to their initiative of banning plastic and paper check-out bags in Austin. A lot of good, in-depth ground is covered below. Hope this is helpful. Please contact Stacy Guidry at Texas Campaign for the Environment with questions. – Chris Searles, IEN Outreach Coordinator

1. What are key reasons that Austin should ban single-use check-out bags?

Austinites use more than 263 million check-out bags a year. Both plastic and paper single-use checkout bags have significant environmental impacts. Plus, we can eliminate the costs of single-use bags that are built into the cost of our groceries and the $850,000 that the city pays for the pollution costs borne by city taxpayers. Other cities that have passed plastic-only bag bans have seen a massive switch to single-use paper bags—not a switch to reusable bags, which is by far the best option for the environment. Reducing bag waste will contribute to Austin reaching our Climate Protection Plan and our Zero Waste Plan to reduce waste by 90% by the year 2040.

2. What are the environmental problems with single-use check-out plastic and paper bags?

Nationwide recycling rates of either type of single-use bag are extremely low - 60-90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are NOT recycled. While metal, glass, and paper litter has decreased by over 80% in the US since 1969, plastic litter increased by a staggering 165%, making this type of pollution the third most abundant. Plastic pollution in the ocean and other waterways has been documented since the early 1970’s and now there are garbage patches in our ocean -in the Pacific, it’s 1,000 miles wide.

Although paper bags can be recycled in by Austinites with access to recycling, paper bags use more energy and water to manufacture than plastic bags and result in more acid rain and greenhouse gas pollution.

3. What are the financial costs of these bags to Austinites?

At City Council’s request, city staff did a study on the costs of plastic checkout bags; it found that they cost Austin taxpayers an estimated $850,000 annually and businesses twice that amount due to litter cleanup costs, sewage and water systems maintenance and recycling machinery shut downs. Based on a pilot project, the city determined a separate citywide curbside bag plastic bag recycling would require an initial investment of $4.5 million and an annual cost of $1.8 million to maintain the program. There are other costs to us as state and federal taxpayers, and unquantifiable costs to the environment. Currently, we all pay for the cost of the check-out bags in the price of our groceries whether we use them or not.(The city has not yet studied the costs of single-use paper bags.)

4. Why not have retailers to convert to biodegradable plastic bags?

Biodegradable bags also have much greater environmental impacts than conventional plastic bags in greenhouse gas emissions and water use. They sometimes only degrade over a long timeframe or under ideal compost conditions, so they can result in the same litter and marine pollution problems as conventional plastic bags. In addition, bio-degradable bags contaminate existing plastic recycling programs and bag costs would still be passed on to consumers. Reusable bags are the least expensive and least harmful to the environment. 

5. Can’t voluntary plastic bag programs take care of this problem?

The City of Austin worked with retailers on a voluntary reduction plan, but the project failed to meet its stated bag reduction goal of 50% from January 2008 through June 2009. (When the retailers later took the program to San Antonio, they only promised a 25% reduction.)

6. Would a fee or tax on single-use bags have the same effect as a ban?

Washington, D.C. put a 5 cent fee on plastic check-out bags and their use declined by an estimated 80%. However, that still leaves 20% of the pollution problem untouched. Low fees that only address what we pay to the city for plastic bag costs fail to capture all the costs of this problem at the state and federal level, in addition to the environmental damage that can’t be counted. Austin has a Zero Waste goal, so it would be better to address this wastestream in a more comprehensive way. There is also a legal question as to whether such a fee is allowed under state law.

7. Milk, produce, meat and cold products need plastic bags to protect them from sweating. Will I still be able to get plastic bags for this protection?

Yes. This effort is focused on single-use check-out bags.

8. Could store provide any checkout bags or boxes?

Yes. Stores could provide reusable bags of any material. There are industry standards for reusable plastic bags (4.0 mil in thickness) and paper bags (65# weight). Brownsville also required reusable bags to have handles for easy carrying. Some stores such as Natural Grocers already provide customers the boxes used to deliver products for free, which would continue to be allowed.

9. Where am I going to get trash bags for the kitchen and home wastebaskets?

Trash bags can be purchased separately. The sale of trash bags would not be affected.

10. Does this ban affect pharmacy and convenience store usage?

The details of which retail stores are affected will be decided after a stakeholder process makes recommendations to the City Council. The Brownsville ordinance exempts pharmacies, veterinarians, garment bags, and paper bags for restaurants, carry-out beverages and liquor stores.

11. What am I am I going to use to pick up dog poop?

Pet owners can use the produce and meat bags or purchase bags for this and other purposes.

12. How will the poor be able to get low cost or free reusable bags?

We expect retailers and others to provide free reusable bags as the ordinance is being implemented. In Brownsville, low cost 25 cent reusable bags are available at some stores. It’s possible that consumers with extra bags will be able to donate bags for use by others. This type of issue will hammered out during the stakeholder process when the ordinance is drafted.

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Hopefully, retailers will pass on some of the money they save from not having to provide free disposable bags to consumers and lower the prices of their products for everyone.

13. Could the single-use check-out ban encourage economic development?

A ban on single-use bags can create an opportunity for local economic development. There is at least one Austin-based business selling reusable bags, Blue Avocado. In addition, manufacturing reusable bags local could provide a low cost entrepreneurial opportunity for the unemployed and others. Surplus and scrap textiles are 5% of Austin’s discard stream.

Textiles have always been a difficult category of materials to recycling or reuse locally - those materials could become the raw fabrics for the local manufacturing of reusable bags. The City, Chambers of Commerce, and local business finance organizations could assist start-ups. Businesses affected by the bag ban could be encouraged to buy the locally produced bags for resale and to pay for advertising on them – two revenue streams for the new businesses.

14. I have read that reusable bags become “hothouses for bacteria.” How can this be avoided?

Simply washing your reusable bags occasionally will avoid this problem.

15. Do reusable bags have toxic chemicals?

There was one instance in which lead paint was used in some Chinese-made bags. There is no evidence that these bags posed an immediate threat to the public. The offending bags were identified and recalled.

16. Don’t paper bags cost retailers more than plastic bags and give retailers an incentive to be less wasteful?

Yes, but consumers absorb those costs in the price of their groceries. Cost savings from a single-use bag ban within the retail and grocer industries could be put toward a public education partnership with the City of Austin to implement the ban on both paper and plastic check out bags, provide low or no-cost reusable bags and/or to reduce prices for consumers.

17. Don’t plastic bags recycle just as plastic soda bottles? Why don't the trash companies or whoever picks up recyclable material want to deal with the bags in the same manner as the bottles?

Plastic bags are not recycled in the same plants that sort plastic bottles and other typical recyclables. Plastic bags can jam and even damage the automated machinery used to sort plastic bottles, glass, metal and paper. Another problem is that the economic value of used plastic bags is very small compared to other common recyclables and they must be clean and free of food waste in order to be recycled.

18. Why must the government intrude further in our private lives?

This type of ordinance is like other health and safety ordinances that are for the common good. We already have sanitation and anti-litter laws. This ordinance will also help us reduce the cost of government and help hold down consumer prices. Learning to bring in your reusable bags when shopping is an easy habit to learn, like buckling your seat belts.

19. What will be the penalty for non-compliance?

This will be determined when the final ordinance is written. The city will meet with stakeholders before writing this ordinance. Brownsville’s ordinance has a $500 fine on retailers for violating their ordinance.

20. Will this include the plastic bags used for newspaper delivery? I get 365 of those a year!

Newspaper delivery bags will probably not be covered in this ordinance because they are not retail check-out bags.

21. How will this affect food pantries and other non-profit organizations?

The ordinance will probably only apply to retail stores, not food pantries or most non-profit organizations.

22. Are there any state laws on banning check-out bags?

In 2009 and 2011, the Texas Retailers Association and Texas Chemical Council have pushed for state legislation that would take away the ability of local governments to address the costs of single-use bags. In 2011, the local governments with bag ordinances - Brownsville, Ft. Stockton, and South Padre Island worked with environmental advocates such as Texas Campaign for the Environment and Surfriders Foundation to defeat these bills. An amendment to a 2011 metal recycling law that passed (SB 694) requires local governments to give 30-day notice and hold a public hearing before prohibiting the use or sale of a recyclable product, which is not a problem for compliance purposes.

© 2017 Interfaith Environmental Network