in Houston, Texas
Paper or plastic? That could soon cost you in the city of Austin.
Thursday, Aug 04, 2011, 10:00AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
grocery bags

Concerned about lawsuits and a different and, perhaps, more expensive environmental problem, the Austin City Council is likely to call for charging grocery shoppers who ask for paper or plastic.

While much remains to  be decided in scope and detail, a vote today is likely to reflect a consensus reached by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and council members that the best way to reduce disposable bags in the waste stream is to put the burden on grocery stores and their customers.

“Something is definitely going to pass (Thursday), and I believe it will involve a fee of some sort,” council member Bill Spelman said Wednesday afternoon. “I think Bob Gedert (director of the city’s Solid Waste Services Department) has a clear sense of where the council wants to go with this.”

Where the council wanted to go with the resolution was, until the last 36 hours, not readily apparent to the public. Still posted along with the agenda for Thursday’s council meeting is a copy of an unnumbered resolution calling for the city manager to develop by November an ordinance phasing out plastic bags in Austin.

At a work session on Tuesday, however, council members expressed concerns about the fallout from banning only plastic bags. More than a dozen bans in California have been met by lawsuits filed by plastics companies, contending their product was being discriminated against. The California Supreme Court recently ruled that cities were within their rights to impose plastic bag prohibitions.

The City Council would rather avoid those legal difficulties altogether, Spelman said.

Banning plastic bags would also renew the debate over the environmental and cost impact in both the production and disposal of plastic as opposed to paper. Given no choice, a retail grocer would almost certainly pack groceries in paper, which retailers have long complained are more expensive than plastic. Spelman says he isn’t sure if paper bags don’t take a higher environmental toll.

The framework for the ordinance would allow Austin grocery stores to offer to their customers both paper and plastic bags but at a fee to offset the cost of their disposal. What the fee would be, how that fee might be collected by the city and what those fees would be used to offset have not been determined, Spelman said.

“I don’t want us to get bogged down right now by the details of the fee,” Spelman said. “I would prefer to solve the problems and, if we can, solve it fast and easy.”

The open-ended nature of the ordinance discussion has been unsettling for the members of the Texas Retailers Association, which include some of the largest grocery chains in Texas. Until Wednesday, association president Ronnie Volkening said he was not aware that paper bags had been added to ordinance consideration.

Retailers have been working with the city for several years to create voluntary recycling plans to reduce the number of plastic bags thrown away. In April of 2008 retailers agreed to reduce the number of plastic bags they used by 50 percent in 18 months. The city said retailers were able to reduce plastic bag use by only 20 percent.

Volkening countered, saying the city did not include in its calculations what he said was a 74 percent increase in the number of plastic bags recycled at designated spots in participating grocery stores.

“We find that a little frustrating, but we take responsibility for the retailers not doing as good a job as they should telling the public about our recycling programs,” Volkening said. “We need to encourage the secondary use of these bags.”

Without their removal from the waste stream, Solid Waste Services estimated the city spends $850,000 a year on plastic bag removal alone, according to a report Gedert made to the city in January.

By extrapolating from a U.S. International Trade Commission report from 2009, Gedert estimated Austin shoppers need 263 million plastic bags for their goods every year. The cost to create a curbside collection program for plastic bags alone would cost between $1.8 million and $2.7 million a year, the report says.

Should Austin go forward, it would be the first Texas city to include paper bags as a way of getting at the plastic bag problem. Brownsville, the first city to enact a plastic bag ban, charges customers without reusable bags $1 to have their groceries bagged in plastic.

Fort Stockton’s ban on plastic bags will kick in in September, and South Padre Island will impose its ban in January of 2012.

San Francisco and Portland are among the roughly two dozen communities nationwide with bans on plastic bags. Statewide bans in California and Oregon, however, have failed in their respective legislatures.
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of grocery bags by flickr user sbluerock, used via a Creative Commons license.
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