Officials reinspect plastic bag memorandum before March vote

Bobby Blanchard

Misused data was cited in a memorandum which helped support the proposed ban of plastic bags from Austin, said Steven Stein, principal of Environmental Resource Planning, LLC, in a letter to Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery on Jan. 10.

Gedert said he is reviewing the information Stein provided in the letter and is expecting to be able to respond to Stein and update the City Council in time for a public forum on Jan. 30 that Austin Resource Recovery is holding to gain feedback from the public on a proposed ban of single-use bags in retails and stores.

The Plastic Bag Cost Findings and Clarifications memorandum, which provided the cost of managing plastic bags in Austin to the council, is dated Jan. 12, 2011 and has been a part of the movement to ban plastic bags, which the council will discuss and may vote on in March. Should the ban pass, it would mean consumers will have to use reusable bags at retailers and stores in Austin.

The misused data comes from Keep America Beautiful’s 2009 National Litter Research Findings and Recommendations study. The memorandum states that the staff assumed the volume of plastic bags in Austin’s litter stream was approximately 2.2 percent, a number that cited back to the study. Stein, who was the project manager of the study, said the 2.2 percent referred not to plastic bags but to ‘other plastic film,’ which was defined in the study as agricultural film, plastic sheeting used as drop cloths and building wrap. The proposed ban is only concerned with plastic bags used in retail stores.

The percentage amount that concerned plastic bags was not printed in the study because the number was too small compared to other findings, Stein said.

He said the study found that plastic bags comprised only 0.6 percent of litter. And, Stein said that 0.6 percent was still more than what the actual percentage of litter Austin is considering banning, as it also includes trash bags and dry cleaning bags, which are not included in the ban.

“If the ban is focusing on retail plastic bags, well then retail plastic bags are just a small portion of all plastic bags,” Stein said.

Ronnie Volkening, CEO of the Texas Retailers Association, who has opposed the ban, said at the time of the memorandum’s release he wondered about its accuracy, specifically the memorandum’s claim that the cost to manage plastic bags in Austin was $850,000 per year.

“The 850,000 is actually written in as part as the ordinance language itself, so it has clearly been used to drive the momentum and impress the city upon the need for some action,” Volkening said.

Volkening said the memorandum has played a role in the plastic bag movement.

“We think it has served to create an air of necessity in taking some dramatic action based on faulty numbers,” Volkening said.

However, Gedert said it was important to clarify that the proposed ban does not rest solely on the numbers in the memorandum.

“Four years of working closely with retailers to reduce plastic bag consumption voluntarily were ineffective,” Gedert said. “Therefore, the council is considering additional steps.”

Printed on Thursday, January 19, 2012 as: Proposal cites misleading data, bags small poortion of litter