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Austin bag ban

Gone are the days when grocery shoppers in Austin, Texas were asked if they want paper or plastic. Beginning today, they don’t get either.

A number of communities across the country have banned plastic grocery bags (read: “Paper, Plastic or Please Butt Out?”). But Austin has become the first city in the country to ban both paper and plastic disposable shopping bags. Stores can charge for reusable bags, but they’re not required to offer them at all. So if you do any shopping in town, be prepared to bring your own bag – or take your chances that you’ll be carrying everything home in your arms.

The city’s biggest grocer, H-E-B, has been giving away 700,000 free reusable bags leading up to the law’s March 1 start date. Thereafter, anyone can buy bags for 25 cents apiece. The store also got special permission to offer an “emergency option” – for $1 per transaction, you can have your order packed into old-fashioned single-use paper or plastic bags if you forget your reusable bags and don’t want to have to buy new ones.

Walmart is offering fabric bags for 50 cents each, or thick paper bags with handles (which are allowed under the ordinance) for 10 cents. Target will also sell reusable bags, but paper bags with handles will be free of charge. Same with Walgreens. Other retailers like Whole Foods say they won’t be affected, since their bags already meet the law’s standards.

Many Austin shoppers say this will take some getting used to. “I know I might not remember to bring my own bag at some point and then be mad when I then have to buy some,” one shopper told the Community Impact newspaper. “Every time I empty the car and put the groceries in the house, I forget to put those stupid (reusable) bags back in the car,” another shopper told Austin’s KXAN.

Supporters of the law say shoppers will get the hang of it. It’s worth it, they say, to eliminate an estimated 282 million single-use bags used in Austin each year. But opponents aren’t done fighting the law. The Texas Retailers Association filed a last-minute legal challenge this week, arguing that the city overreached, and that only the state has the authority to enact a bag ban.

Some critics say, while the bag ban is well meaning, it may have unintended consequences. The plastics industry argues that many people already recycle or reuse plastic grocery bags, as lunch sacks for example, and that reusable bags can be unhealthy and carry bacteria if not washed between uses. A member of the “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition” (yes, there is such a thing) wonders if anyone has considered what tourists will do, if they have to pop into a store in an unfamiliar location. “If a tourist buys a reusable bag, it will end up in a hotel trash bin and then a landfill,” the organization’s Stephen Joseph told the New York Times. And guess what, he adds – many reusable bags themselves contain plastic.

Others claim that bag bans are bad for business. The National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, analyzed Los Angeles County’s ban on plastic bags. In an August 2012 report, the group asserted that stores in the county lost money on the reusable bags they purchased, and lost customers who simply went to stores outside the bag-ban area instead. “Shoppers want to have a choice and will vote with their feet,” an NCPA member said. And a recent survey conducted in Seattle found that, since a plastic bag ban went into effect there, 20% of store owners reported an increase in shoplifting, with shoppers apparently sneaking extra items into their opaque reusable bags.

And still others claim bag bans are actually bad for the environment. A 2006 British study found that, because of the energy required to make them, cotton reusable bags would have to be used 173 times in order to be less polluting than standard disposable plastic bags.

Unless the challenge to the law is successful, though, Austin residents and retailers don’t have a choice anymore. And others will soon follow. Hawaii’s Honolulu County has passed its own plastic and paper bag ban, but it’s not due to take effect until 2015. That “gives us plenty of time to get ready,” Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said after signing the ban last year.

For Austin shoppers, that day has now come – ready or not.

One Comment

  1. Please correct me if I am wrong but weren’t we encouraged to switch from paper to plastic “to protect the environment”? We were saving trees-right?

    & what kind of ‘ban’ is this where if you pay a $1 it doesn’t apply? More punishment for the poor?

    [I love your blog. I find such interesting things here. Stories I can’t find anywhere else. Thanks!]

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