This past weekend I went grocery shopping and was outraged to discover that at the end of this month, Austin is banning bags – plastic & paper. This was the first I had heard and was surprised that a large Texas City would make this huge jump. There are some exceptions to this new policy, including bags used for dry cleaning, newspaper, produce, pharmaceutical, and a few others. Stores must provide reusable bags as an alternative and it’s up to them on whether to charge for the reusable bags.  The proponents of this ban name litter as their main motivation. Austin officials are hoping to reduce the number of bags that end up at landfills. Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, testified before the City Council that a recent study, “Litter in America,” found that plastic bags comprise 2.2% of the city´s litter. 
What’s interesting is one of the authors of this study, responded that this statistic was not correct. They believe that about 0.6% of the litter is plastic bags, but this includes industrial wrapping and house hold trash bags. 
What concerns me is it seems the entire scope of banning plastic bags was not considered. After working at ExxonMobil, the mantra was always say plastic, never paper. It takes less energy to produce plastic bags than paper bags, about a 3:1 ratio. Compared to the reusable bags made from polypropylene, the one-time use plastic bag use 28 times less energy to manufacture.  In order to achieve the same amount of energy, you would need to use the reusable bags at least 28 times.
The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) published a survey on the effects of Los Angeles’ similar bag ban. The NCPA found the reuse of cloth grocery bags leads to “cross-contamination and a proliferation of disease-carrying bacteria.”  An increased amount of e-coli were found in reusable bags. These findings don’t suggest there’s going to be an outbreak of disease from the bags, but there is an increased risk over plastic bags. To mitigate this risk, it is suggested to regularly wash the bags, which increases water & energy use for the bags. This leads to wear & tear, and most bags are not used over 28 times to recoup the energy versus a traditional bag.
Furthermore, switching from plastic to reusable bags will have an environmental impact. University of Oregon Chemistry professor David Tyler, suggests plastic bags are actually better for the environment than either paper or reusable bags. Tyler states that plastic bags “produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton. The carbon footprint…is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag.” Another plus for plastic bags, is they are significant to the US economy. More plastic bags are produced in the US than the reusable bags, which are predominantly made in China.
The US does use a significant amount of plastic bags, “approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States each year — more than 1,200 bags per U.S. resident, per year”.  Instead of banning plastic bags, I wish Austin had moved to add more plastic bag recycling drop-off locations and increase education on limiting waste and recycling bags. I’m interested to see the outcome of the plastic bag ban and whether Austin will overturn this decision.