Plastic bag ban up for debate in Austin

Jillian Bliss

Months of meetings with Austin residents, business owners and city officials led to an open forum Monday night seeking the public’s final input on plastic bag prohibition.

City officials began discussing the possible bag ban in April and held several meetings during the past six months seeking public insight on the issue. At an Aug. 4 city council meeting, members voted to draft an unofficial ordinance outlining possible provisions for ending the use of plastic retail bags. Officials supporting the plastic bag ban believe it will improve the environment by reducing waste and help cut city spending used on cleanup programs. Litter from the bags is also harmful to area wildlife and increases flooding by clogging water passages, according to the unofficial ordinance.

The city of Austin engaged in a pilot study in 2007 encouraging residents to recycle plastic bags, but Mayor Lee Leffingwell said during the forum that implementing a permanent ban would be more efficient than encouraging recycling.

“We have gone to an auto-sorting recycling system, but the one thing that doesn’t fit is plastic bags,” Leffingwell said. “People stand by the machines and have to pull them out by hand. If they miss them they can clog the machines.”

Some opposing the ban, such as Texas Retailers Association president and CEO Ronnie Volkening, said it is not the city’s recycling system which fails but the inefficient marketing plan used to promote recycling of bags.

Volkening and other forum attendees shared personal input regarding exceptions to the ordinance, a timeline for its implementation and fees associated with implementation, as well as how to enforce the rule. Citizens participated in focus groups to discuss their ideas for bettering the ban. The meeting was the final opportunity for public comment, Austin Resource Recovery director Bob Gedert said, and city administrators will begin drafting an official ordinance Nov. 1 to ban the bags within the next year.

“You can go out any day of the week and find plastic bags flying,” Gedert said. “This past weekend on Saturday it was windy and I caught a few.”

Gedert said in addition to concerns listed in the ordinance, plastic bags can pose safety issues such as drifting through the wind and distracting drivers.

Some who oppose the ban feel more concerned with its possible affects on state jobs and the economy. Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy at Hilex Poly Company which produces plastic bags, said his company employs more than 1,250 total in bag manufacturing and recycling. Daniels spoke with city council members at the Aug. 4 regular meeting, facing opposition to the viewpointshe presented.

“An alternative idea is to go down the same path they started with, having grocers and retailers push toward a very strong recycling infrastructure,” Daniels said. “If they ban plastic bags, they’re voting for higher greenhouse gas and the destruction of bags.”

Volkening and others sharing views similar to Daniels’ have developed an alternative to the ordinance city officials plan to implement, and Volkening said they plan to announce their proposal Thursday morning at City Hall.