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Austin should nix plastic bags, group says

May 11, 2010

bagthebags1Austin American-Statesman
Sarah Coppela

A group of environmental advocates wants the City of Austin to ban plastic bags, saying the bags are an environmental scourge and that retailers have not substantially reduced the use of the bags through a voluntary program.

Facing the threat of a plastic bag ban, six large retailers — H-E-B, Randalls, Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens and Whole Foods — agreed in 2008 to try to voluntarily reduce, by 50 percent, the plastic bags sent to landfills by June 2009. Whole Foods stopped offering plastic bags in spring 2008.

From January 2008 to June 2009, the retailers reduced the pounds of plastic bags they purchased by 27 percent, increased the amount they recycled by 42 percent, reduced the amount they sent to landfills by 38 percent, and sold about 907,000 reusable bags, according to data compiled by the Texas Retailers Association.

Those numbers haven’t swayed the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, a group of environmental advocates that will ask city leaders today to consider a plastic bag ban.

“They’re still putting far more bags into the waste stream than they’re recycling, and more needs to be done,” said Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and a member of the alliance.

The alliance wants a ban to be phased in over six months but is flexible about when it would take effect and whether all retailers or just large retailers would have to comply, Schneider said. Paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled content would be exempt from the ban, she said.

Plastic bags choke wildlife, pollute waterways, clog sewers and drainage systems, and take up landfill space, where they don’t biodegrade, she said. The City of Austin has a “zero waste” goal of dramatically reducing the trash sent to landfills by 2040. But it’s not clear whether there is enough support among City Council members for a plastic bag ban.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Monday that he wouldn’t rule out a ban but thought the voluntary program did reduce plastic bag use. Other council members didn’t return calls or said they’d need to see more details about a possible ban.

H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Lockett said, “We don’t believe that switching to paper bags is a better solution for the environment. They require more energy and fuel to produce and transport, they take up more landfill space, and they still take a long time to biodegrade.”

Other large retailers didn’t return calls Monday. Ronnie Volkening of the Texas Retailers Association said that group would prefer to see an expanded voluntary program and more marketing efforts to educate customers about using reusable bags. Several issues need to be studied before a ban is enacted, he said, such as the environmental effects of paper bags and whether it is practical to require all customers to forgo plastic.

San Francisco already has a plastic bag ban. In Texas, Brownsville has passed a plastic bag ban that will take effect in January 2011. The City of Austin collected plastic bags through a curbside collection pilot program offered to 5,000 households in 2008.

But the program had low participation, according to a city report. It cost $34,835 to carry out, but crews collected 7,793 pounds of plastic bags, which had a market value of only $1,170.


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