Cleaning up, not cracking down

Roy Cathey

As March draws to a close, the city of Austin can reflect on its first month without single-use bags. Working at a local grocery store through it all has proved to be much like a bad “Portlandia” skit, as customer after customer apprehensively asks how I can bag their groceries. Ardent opponents of the ordinance spout caveats of socialist takeover while the silent majority kindly hand over their reusable bags. All things considered, I think Austin is going to survive the “bag ban” just fine — and we have every reason to try.

The single-use bag ordinance is a small step towards Austin’s Zero Waste Plan goal of diverting 95 percent of our trash from landfills by the year 2040. While the city of Austin doesn’t seem to be making too much of a fuss, we are geographically bound to the state of Texas, which is home to many who feel differently about the ordinance.

Texas Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is serving as the voice for Texas’ dissenting opinion, claiming the ordinance is just another example of “an attempt to push forward a misguided nanny-state agenda.” Springer has formalized his opposition in the form of the “Shopping Bag Freedom Act,” legislation, which he introduced with the intent of overturning Austin’s new ordinance as soon as possible. In short, a state representative from a North Texas town of 1,500 is trying to overturn Austin’s local ordinance on the grounds that it is governmental overreach.

The irony of that statement aside, it is our right to be given bags, right? This is a matter of American freedom. But Andrew Dobbs, program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment, doesn’t see it that way.

“I have a right to a community that’s safe, clean, and healthy,” Dobbs said. “We have shopped at markets for 3-4,000 years as a series of civilizations, and it’s only in the last 30-40 years that we’ve had an expectation that we’ll get a single-use bag for free. Our founding fathers were expected to bring containers for their goods, and we can, too.”

Our insistence on convenience has allowed us to create an illusion of necessity, and this illusion is so well-established that something as minute as what our groceries are put into has turned into a hotly-contested policy debate. This ordinance could be perceived in many more productive ways than as a deprivation of freedom. Though it may be small, it is by all accounts a step in the right direction.

The quantifiable possible effects of single-use bags on a city are considerable. According to research done by Austin Resource Recovery, the stream of single-use bags is costing the city approximately $800,000 annually through litter cleanup and landfill costs alone. Paper bag production requires relatively large amounts of water that Texas does not have to spare, assuming the bags are not being imported from abroad. According to Dobbs, however, this ordinance means more than what can be translated into dollars and cents.

“It’s significant as a symbol of commitment to our community,” Dobbs said with pride. “It’s moving beyond a disposable culture towards a culture of responsibility for our resources.”

Environmental pride is the key to “surviving” this ordinance, and the many more to come. Businesses like Buffalo Exchange on Guadalupe and 29th share this pride, and have had a reward system in place for customers who want to abstain from using a bag since long before the ordinance. If customers chose not to use a single-use bag to carry home their purchases, they were given a token to donate to an environmental cause of their choice. Now that they have no bags of any kind, patrons simply receive a token at the end of every transaction.

Single-use bags make up less than 2 percent of the waste stream in Austin, which leaves room for much environmental improvement. There is no “nanny state agenda” behind these modifications, just a city that wants to start cleaning up after itself. These small adjustments will soon become just as much of a habit as single-use bags were, and we, as a community, can move onto bigger and greener things.

Cathey is a journalism sophomore from Dripping Springs.