Don’t misunderstand plastic bags’ impact

Larisa Manescu

An Austin city ordinance that prohibits businesses from providing plastic and paper single-use shopping bags to customers goes into effect on March 1, and I’m excited for the enforcement. The regulation will encourage me to finally bring my oft-forgotten reusable bags to the store when I go grocery shopping.

Making the transition to reusable bags for grocery shopping is a good idea. Whereas a ban may frustrate some Austin residents early on, it probably won’t be such a controversial regulation once people become accustomed to toting their reusable bags around.

However, there are some holes behind the new ordinance that should be addressed to make the issue transparent to Austin residents.

The report that initially influenced Austin city officials to consider a disposable bag ban presented inaccurate data that overstated the environmental impact of plastic bags. Bob Gedert, the director of Austin Resource Recovery, authored a January 2011 memorandum, “Plastic Bag Findings and Considerations,” which states, “The volume of plastic bags in the Austin’s litter stream is approximately 2.2 percent based on Keep America Beautiful’s (KAB) Litter in America: 2009 National Litter Research Findings and Recommendations.”

A co-author of the national study, Steven Stein, noticed the 2.2 percent figure in the memo and emailed Gedert to notify him of the error. In Stein’s study, 2.2 percent referred to the litter contribution by “other plastic film,” which included agricultural film and building wrap. In reality, the “plastic bags” category made up only 0.6 percent of all litter, and since that category also included trash bags and dry-cleaning bags, the figure for shopping grocery bags is even smaller.

Stein told Gedert that he had “overstated the amount and cost impact of plastic bags by 366 percent,” but Gedert offered no public or private response to the mistake. Texas Watchdog, a publication committed to investigative journalism, reported the incident in January 2012, but it hasn’t received much attention elsewhere. 

Another point to consider is that plastic bags, if reused and disposed of properly, aren’t as damaging as they have been made out to be.

The term “single-use” plastic bags is generally misleading, because many plastic bags brought home with groceries are often reused for pet waste cleanup, lunch bags, and lining small trash cans in bathrooms and near computer desks, among many other uses.

Ethan Thomson, a UT senior majoring in finance, said that the ban was a “little much,” adding, “I live with six people total and we all save those plastic bags from HEB or recycle them.”

Bag hoarding isn’t habitual yet for everyone. Many people throw plastic bags away with the trash, which is why they are often seen as harmful to the environment. Since the bags are rarely recycled, not biodegradable and easily carried by wind and water, plastic bags accumulate into litter and break down into small pieces that are particularly dangerous to marine life. However, instead of making a broadbrush condemnation of the use of plastic bags in general, environmental activists should focus on educating the public to always store, reuse and recycle them.

Austin residents can still buy plastic bags and continue to use them for household needs, but they should be more conscious of their ultimate disposal. Austin retailers, including Central Market, HEB, Randall’s, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market, provide bins in front of their stores that collect used plastic bags.

The use of reusable bags has become something of a fashionable trend in cities, especially among college students and young professionals. It wouldn’t matter that reusable bags were the new popular accessory if the result were environmental consciousness, but people often hop on the green bandwagon without understanding the specifics of how different bags contribute to pollution.

Manescu is a journalism and international relations and global studies sophomore from Ploiesti, Romania.