How Will Austin Respond to the 2013 Plastic Bag Ban?

Last November, a few months after I moved to Austin, my friend told me some news I found rather exciting. The local Wallgreens I frequented for anything from a tube of toothpaste to a celebratory six-pack of Fat Tire after a grueling exam had altogether stopped using disposable plastic bags, requiring costumers to either bring their own reusable bags or carry their items to the car without a bag. The next time I made it to Wallgreens I was disappointed when I made it to the front of the line and the cashier asked if I needed a bag. Sure enough, the usual stack of plastic bags was hanging from behind the counter, each waiting its turn to make its trip to the local landfill (if it indeed made it to the landfill before getting carried off in the wind).
It turned out, the cashier told me, that enough people had made a fit about having to hand carry their goods to the car that Wallgreens decided to give in after less than two weeks of going bag free. Pretty soon, customers will be able to vent their frustration to the Wallgreens clerks again about how inconvenient it is to carry their reusable bags with them, but this time around Wallgreens won’t have the choice of going back to their disposable bag ways. On March 2, 2012, Austin City Council officially passed a city-wide law banning disposable bags at checkout counters [1]. The law will take effect in March of 2013 and includes both plastic and paper disposables.
So what are the energy implications? In 2010, Austin’s Population was 790,390 [2] and as a whole the United States uses about 330 plastic bags per person annually [3]. Assuming Austin consumes bags at the same rate as the rest of the United States, that’s about 260 million plastic bags each year consumed by Austin residents. According to the National Cooperative Grocers Association, it takes 594 BTU to produce one plastic bag [4]. The means that the annual energy required to produce plastic bags for Austin residents is about 155 billion BTU. To put that number in perspective, the city ofAustin consumed about 44 trillion BTU on electricity production in FY 09 [5].
Of course, similar the mini-ban at Wallgreens, there’s been an outcry of opposition to the city-wide ban despite the environmental benefits. Check out this video that one my of my classmates put together summarizing some of the uproar.

It will be interesting to see what the public response is once the ban takes effect next spring. More importantly, I wonder, how will the city react if the public response is more severe than they anticipate? Will they respond the way Wallgreens did and shut down the ban immediately? Or they enforce it long enough for the people of Austin realize that keeping a few reusable bags in their trunk and carrying them into the store isn’t so hard once it becomes habitual?
[1] Austin Statesmen. Austin Passes Bag Ban. Accessed May 6, 2012.
[2] U.S. Census Bureau. State and County Quick Facts. Accessed May 6, 2012
[3] Facts About the Plastic Bag Pandemic. Accessed May 6, 2012
[4] National Cooperative Grocers Association. Checkout Choices: The Paper vs. Plastic Controversy. Accessed May 6, 2012
[5] Austin Energy. Open Meeting/Open Records Resolution Annual Report 2009. Accessed May 6, 2012.


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