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Bag-Ban Movement Sweeps Austin; Other Texas Cities Next?

March 2, 2012

AUSTIN, Texas - Supporters of Thursday's decision by the Austin City Council to stop retailers from providing customers with single-use paper and plastic bags predict the movement will continue to spread across the state and nation.

Bag restrictions already are in place in Brownsville, Fort Stockton and South Padre Island, and Pecos and Odessa are considering the matter.

Bag-ban critics say the costs of dealing with disposable bag waste have been exaggerated, but Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, cites independent analysts who say dealing with the various effects of that trash costs the city of Austin almost $800,000 a year.

"Whatever the number is, we're talking about the very tip of the iceberg. This is a huge cost to local businesses, to local taxpayers, and to things that you can't quantify in dollars and cents: the world around us - our air, water, land, and wildlife."

Austinites go through 774,000 single-use bags each day, Dobbs says, 80 percent of which are discarded into the waste stream.

Across the nation, more than 50 cities have banned or limited plastic bags. Dobbs says initial pushback from consumers is common, but they tend to embrace the policies as they see cleaner communities. He compares the restrictions with other societal changes that were not wildly popular when first implemented.

"When we decided that you couldn't smoke cigarettes in the doctor's office, or that you had to have seat belts in your car, or that you couldn't pour your motor oil into the storm drain, very quickly people realized that this was the responsible, healthy, grown-up thing to do."

Instead of banning the bags, plastic-bag manufacturers say, it would be better to ramp up recycling efforts. Dobbs, however, argues that recycling hasn't worked. Changing the way consumers bring home goods, he adds, is a more fundamental approach to managing the waste stream.

"You have 'reduce,' 're-use,' and then 'recycle.' This reduces our dependence upon disposable products. It's the most efficient use of our resources, and the quickest way to get us to zero waste."

During the past few years Austin officials have tried to reduce by half the number of bags winding up in landfills by making it easier to recycle them, but the waste has only declined by 20 percent, according to city figures. Before the ban takes effect, Austin will launch a campaign to educate consumers and retailers about the new policy.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX