Abbott should defend Texas plastic bag bans

The legality of Austin’s single-use plastic bag ban — and that of other similar policies throughout the state — may soon be facing a formal opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office. Two weeks ago, Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, requested an opinion on the validity of ordinances that limit the use of single-use plastic bags by retailers. Although an opinion from Abbott on the matter would not affect the ordinances that are already on the books, it may set a precedent going forward regarding similar restrictions. Although Abbott is currently occupied with running for governor, he should still take the opportunity to respond to Flynn’s letter and support the environmentally-friendly ordinance. Sure, it would be an unconventional move for a conservative Texas Republican, but that doesn’t make it a bad place to start. 

Austin implemented its ordinance in March 2013, and the city’s Resource Recovery Department, which manages waste, has touted its success in reducing litter in city parking lots and waterways as well as limiting the number of bags that end up in waste processing plants. Aiden Cohen, the department’s project manager, said the bags made up a significant majority of city’s litter.

“Too often they would end up as litter blowing around the roads and ending up in our creeks and streams and waterways,” Cohen said. “It becomes a problem for wildlife and flooding. The goal was to dramatically reduce the distribution of those and encourage people and businesses to move to more durable options.”

Cohen said 30 percent fewer thin plastic bags have reached the solid waste and recycling plants since the ban went into effect, though the plants that service Austin’s trash also service several surrounding areas. Cohen said, throughout the city, the litter previously caused by the bags has all but disappeared.

Austin Watershed Protection Spokeswoman Lynne Lightsey said the department’s research scientist had seen a significant decrease in waterway litter, although no exact numbers were measured before the ban to quantify how many fewer bags there are now.

Given the obvious environmental benefits, why does Flynn want to see the ordinances overturned, especially considering that the district he represents doesn’t even have any in place? Let’s also consider Flynn was approached by the Texas Retailer Association to send the letter, a group with vocal opposition to the policies. 

Flynn notes, in his letter, that nine Texas cities have passed bag ban ordinances, though, according to the Texas Tribune, the Texas Health and Safety Code does not allow municipal districts to place legislative restrictions or fees on packaging or containers for waste management. Flynn wants Abbott’s office to consider whether grocery bags are included under this portion of the code, thus invalidating the municipalities anti-plastic-bag ordinances. 

Plastic ban restrictions, undoubtedly, impact consumers, who have to suffer through the indignity of having to remember to bring their plastic bags to their grocery story — or else suffer the burden of carrying their goods in, God forbid, biodegradable paper. 

Sarcasm aside, the ban has incited its fair share of complaints. According to the Austin American-Statesman, in the last year, 74 citizen complaints were filed regarding the bag restrictions. Because, Cohen said, all Austin retailers are in full compliance with the ordinance, we can assume that those angry citizen’s weren’t calling to report plastic-bag-ban violating retailers.  

It’s also true that alternatives to plastic bags, such as thicker paper bags — the production of which can produce 70 percent more atmospheric emission — are less environmentally friendly than their plastic counterparts. By encouraging the move to reusable mesh or cloth bags, cities that ban plastic bags can reap the benefits of both litter-free creeks and a smaller carbon footprint. 

No one likes paying for something that was once free, but the last year has shown that Austin retailers and consumers can adapt. And, if the benefit is being able to enjoy areas like Lady Bird Lake and Zilker Park free of flapping plastic bag litter, it is obviously worth it. As is, Abbott is severely lacking credit with environmentalists. That’s not exactly a problem for his Republican voter base, but, with a policy as clearly beneficial as this, Abbott should take the risk of stepping outside his political comfort zone and show that he cares about the Texas environment by supporting these ordinances.