City-wide plastic bag ban requires shoppers to bring their own reusable bags

Hannah Jane DeCiutiis

Students who forgetfully stash collections of reusable grocery bags in closets and car trunks will actually need to remember to bring their bags into stores starting Friday, when a city-wide ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in retail stores takes effect.

The ordinance, passed by City Council in March 2012, mandates retail stores in the city to stop handing out single-use plastic bags to encourage the reuse of bags. Exemptions to the ordinance include such items as restaurant take-out bags and bags for bulk items, produce, alcohol and medicine. 

Courtney Black, public information specialist for Austin Resource Recovery, said the city’s goal is to reduce 90 percent of waste in landfills by the year 2040.

“We’ve been doing a significant amount of outreach over the last year in the hopes that when the March 1 date lands it’ll be a smooth transition,” Black said. “Basically, our biggest message to consumers is to remember their reusable bags, but not to worry if they forget.”

Establishments can apply for certain types of exemptions based on their business practices. Black said grocery retailer H-E-B has been approved for an emergency access exemption, allowing them to sell single-use bags at $1 per transaction to customers who forget to bring their bags.

Hunter Mangrum, environmental specialist for UT’s Division of Housing and Food Service, said DHFS has been sourcing biodegradable bags for on-campus convenience stores since at least 2006. Although DHFS is not required to abide by city ordinance, Mangrum said they are committed to promoting their eco-friendly practices to students.

“As far as DHFS goes, we’re technically in compliance with the bag ban no matter what, because there isn’t a stipulation in any ordinance about biodegradable bags,” Mangrum said. “We do also sell a reusable bag that we promote and you can get discounts for using at our locations.”

Mangrum said though he does not foresee the transition going over smoothly, changing routines is a key part of the process.

“It’s going to affect behavior,” Mangrum said. “That’s what we’re really trying to do in this field, is trying to get people to approach their daily tasks differently so we can affect the world we live in.” 

Cary Rabb, president of Wag-A-Bag Convenience Stores, said he is concerned about how the bag ban will affect business. The chain opened in Round Rock in 1964. They will be charging customers 18 cents more per transaction for reusable plastic bags. Rabb said if larger retailers receive exemptions, it disadvantages other businesses.  

“We also hear that our largest grocery retailer in Austin is exempt for a year, which is very frustrating,” Rabb said. “[It] seems like the ordinance should apply to all, because the customer will be confused when they shop with us versus another retailer who may be exempt. Other than that, we are prepared for Friday but concerned as well.”

Melissa Broaddus, mechanical engineering freshman, said she doesn’t see the ban having a large effect on the city’s waste problem, but carrying reusable bags won’t be an inconvenience.

“I don’t think it’s going to be that big of an effect,” Broaddus said. “Plastic bags aren’t a huge part of the waste, there’s a lot of other things that are going to contribute to that, so if you’re going to reduce it you’re going to have to reduce other things, too.”