March 21, 2012
Although the Austin City Council passed one of the broadest bag bans in the nation early Friday , a few details remain to be ironed out.
Among them is what the penalties will be for refusing to comply with the law, which will prohibit retailers from offering single-use paper and plastic bags at all retail checkout counters starting in March 2013 . Penalties and details about who will enforce the ban will be worked out over the next few months, said Jennifer Herber , a spokeswoman for Austin Resource Recovery , the city's trash and recycling department.
Only retailers, not customers, will face penalties, she said.
The council also asked staffers to explore creating an "emergency option" that would allow shoppers who forget their reusable bags to pay a fee for disposable bags so that they aren't forced to buy more reusable bags. It's not clear exactly how that would work or whether it would simply become a loophole for customers to continue getting disposable bags.
Before and after the ban takes effect, the city plans to do a $2 million education campaign to alert shoppers to the change and remind them to bring reusable bags.
The council decided not to enact a fee on disposable bags before the ban takes effect. An interim fee had been discussed as a way to help shoppers and retailers begin to change their habits and prepare for a ban.
Austin is the first big Texas city to pass a bag ban. More than two dozen U.S. cities have bag laws, most of them prohibiting plastic bags and imposing a fee on paper.
"This is about Austin reclaiming its position as the national leader in environmental protection," said Rick Cofer , vice chairman of the city's Zero Waste Advisory Commission, who has pushed for a ban for five years. "This ordinance is forward-looking. It may have taken a few years, but we got it right."
The City Council came close to enacting a ban a few years ago but held off when a few big retailers agreed to try to voluntarily reduce the plastic bags they offer. Council members have said that program wasn't effective enough, and they asked city staffers last summer to begin writing up a ban.
Friday's vote came at about 2 a.m. , after a daylong council meeting. It was unanimous, even though a few council members recently had expressed reservations about the details of the ban, including the idea of prohibiting paper bags as well as plastic.
Austin retailers will still be able to offer reusable bags, defined as those made of cloth or durable materials, or thicker paper or plastic bags that have handles. Retailers will decide whether to charge for those bags, though most probably will because such bags tend to be costlier to make.
Exempt from the ban will be single-use bags for bulk foods, meat, fish, produce, newspaper delivery, dry cleaning and restaurant carryout foods, and bags that charities and nonprofits use to distribute food and other items.
During months of debate, members of the plastics industry argued that thin plastic bags can be easily recycled and reused, such as for lining trash cans and picking up pet waste. But city leaders said the bags often end up as litter or landfill trash and cause environmental harm. Activists urged the City Council to ban single-use paper bags as well, saying they take more energy to make and transport.
The Texas Retailers Association was the most vocal opponent of a ban, saying it would discourage retailers from continuing robust programs they've built to accept plastic bags and plastic packaging for recycling, meaning more of those goods could end up in landfills.
In recent weeks, ban opponents have urged the city to pursue a program that will allow Austin residents to put plastic bags in their curbside recycling carts. Currently, the city accepts paper but not plastic bags through its curbside collection and recycling program because plastic bags can damage recycling machinery.
Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert said adding plastic bags to the curbside program would be costly and difficult to carry out. He also said Austin should focus on reducing the number of plastic bags in circulation, not simply on continuing to make and recycle them.
About a dozen people stuck around late Thursday and early Friday to offer the council their thoughts on the ban; most were in favor of it.
"It's time for you folks to make history and take a huge step in cleaning up your community," said Robin Schneider , executive director of the nonprofit Texas Campaign for the Environment .
Chris Bailey told the council a ban could have unintended consequences.
"People act like the solution is to just create a crime out of an everyday activity, and all of a sudden, it will go away," he said. "You're trying to modify behavior by creating a punishment for it, and this has not been shown to work. ... I think common sense is being neglected here."
Basics of the ban
Austin retailers will no longer be able to offer thin, so-called single-use paper and plastic bags starting in March 2013 .Retailers will offer only reusable bags made of cloth or durable materials, or thicker paper or plastic bags that have handles.Exemptions will include disposable bags used for bulk foods, meat, fish, produce, dry cleaning, newspaper delivery and restaurant carryout foods.
For more information, visit: http://www.statesman.com/news/local/austin-bag-ban-means-penalties-for-retailers-that-2213031.html?cxtype=rss_news&viewAsSinglePage=true