Austin City Council to impose ban on plastic, paper bags

Kayla Jonsson

After five years of discussion, an ordinance banning disposable bags in Austin passed at about 2 a.m. today.

The ordinance will take effect March 1, 2013 and will prohibit plastic bags and paper bags from being distributed by retailers within Austin city limits. City council will continue to discuss specifics of the ban, and amendments are still possible.

“It has taken us five years to get this passed, starting with our proposal in 2007 to limit and discourage plastic bag use,” Austin Texas Campaign for the Environment program director Andrew Dobbs said. “We have been talking to city council that whole time and all our work has paid off tonight.”

Dobbs said the battle is not over.

“There will be some lobbyists who will try to stop this ban,” Dobbs said. “We still need to figure out certain details of the plan, especially how it is going to be enforced, so some people will try to attack us on that but we just have to keep pushing for it.”

Exceptions include dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, bags provided to transport beer and wine, bags provided by pharmacists or veterinarians and bags containing prepared food.

There will be an option to use emergency plastic bags for a fee in case someone forgets their reusable bags. Retailers will determine the fee themselves.

“My knee-jerk reaction to the emergency bag fee is not to get the city involved,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Jenn Studebaker, a single mother, spoke during the meeting to say she opposes the bag ban because there are not enough facts proving that the new ordinance will be efficient. She also objected to the nature of the meeting because the council did not begin discussing the plastic bag ban until around midnight.

“You call a public hearing at 12 at night, and I have a problem with that,” Studebaker said. “If you look around, there are very few parents here because they are all at home with their kids, so their voices are not being heard.”

The campaign’s executive director Robin Schneider said the bag ban makes sense both environmentally and economically because it will prevent pollution and create a new market for reusable shopping bags.

“The reusable bags will create a new market for those who want to make a fashion statement,” Schneider said. “Some businesses are already looking into making different styles and personalizing the bags. Those who want to just buy the cheapest bags for fifty cents can do that too. It’s just all up to what you’re into.”

Environmentalist Audrey Cravotta said she has worked 50 hours a week for the past two years educating people on the dangers of disposable bags and persuading people not to use them. She said 7,000 Austin residents recently sent letters in support of the bag ban to city council.

“The job of city council is to represent the people of the city,” Cravotta said. “City council would not have fairly represented the people if they did not pass this ordinance because Austin is supposed to be a green city. We need to set an example for the world to be green. If we can do it, so can they.”

Cravotta, along with bag ban supporter Mike Koscielak and three other supporters, arrived at city hall wearing bags on their clothes and on their heads. They described themselves as “bag monsters” representing the evils of disposable bags.

“The thing people need to know is we are monsters and we’ve really become like part of the family,” Koscielak said in the role of a “bag monster.” “We live under the sink and in the garage — right there where your kids play.”