Austin City Council approves March 2013 single-use bag ban

Community Impact Newspaper
Mitzie Stelte

The Austin City Council unanimously passed a bag ban ordinance March 1 on both paper and plastic bags beginning in March 2013. The ban is one of the broadest in the country, and Austin is the largest city in Texas to ban single-use bags.

Council members made some modifications to the ordinance, which included eliminating a transaction fee for disposable bags, as well as doing away with a transitional period of one year prior to the ban. Members added an education campaign on the new ban that is estimated to cost between $1.5 and $2 million, according to Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert.

There are a few exceptions to the ban, such as plastic bags used at dry cleaners as well as exemptions for disposable bags used by local food banks.

The public hearing on the ban was set to begin at 4 p.m., but due to a packed agenda, the bag ban was not discussed until close to midnight, with a vote taken a little after 2 a.m. Several members of the public who support the ban, however, stuck around to testify, including Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment who said after years of debate, now was the time to finally institute the ban.

“This is a huge step to clean up our communities across the planet,” she said.

Leslie Sweet, who represented H-E-B, testified that the retailer supports the ban, though she suggested the possibility of an ongoing emergency fee of $1.50 for those who forget a reusable bag. In that emergency case, the customer would be issued a paper or plastic one. Sweet said in Brownsville, where plastic bags are currently banned, an emergency fee resulted in 85 percent of customers switching to reusable bags within six months. She said the fee could go to either H-E-B or the city.

While Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he would consider the possibility of an emergency option to be added later during the policy’s development, he was not quite sure if the $1.50 fee was appropriate or if the city receive those funds.

“My knee-jerk reaction is I rather keep the city out of that transaction,” Leffingwell said.

Ronnie Volkening, president and CEO of the Texas Retailers Association, spoke in opposition to the ban, saying there was a lack of emphasis on education and recycling. A complete ban sends the message that “no collaborative action on be taken to divert these bags from landfills,” he said.