Austin Bag Ban – For the Best?

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. [1]  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. [2] 

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. [3]  

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. [3]   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.”  [3]  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.”[4] 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”. [3] 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. 







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2 responses to “Austin Bag Ban – For the Best?

  1. arielwang13

    I agree that it is questionable whether or not using reusable bags is better than using plastic or paper bags. Many people feel that paper is at least better than plastic, but they forget how much water and wood might be needed to make all the paper bags we use. It turns out that forests or sections of trees are clear-cut to gather the raw materials necessary to make the paper bags. This poses a big ecological problem because it may reduce increase the maximum flow of water in some regions and decrease the minimum flow in others. Consequently, there might be floods in wet regions and droughts in more arid regions. [1] Although there are a lot of commercial forests specifically grown for the paper industry, it still requires a good amount of water and chemicals (both for pesticides and making the paper itself). As you have mentioned in you blog post, plastic bags in general use less water and chemicals than paper or cotton bags and have a smaller carbon footprint. For me, this puts paper out of the running for being better for the environment.

    The choice between plastic and cloth bags is a harder decision to make. Initially, I had thought that cloth bags must be better because they are reusable. However, after reading your post and doing some research, I have come to realize that there is definitely more problems for using cotton bags than I thought. I failed to consider the fact that growing cotton requires an immense amount of water and pesticides. In fact, about 25% of pesticides used in our country are used for growing cotton! [2] I had also never considered the fact that cloth bags could lead to “cross-contamination and a proliferation of disease-carrying bacteria.” [3] Although this may be true, the Austin ban has exceptions for allowing the use of plastic bags for meats. [4] I feel that this exception may help to reduce contamination and the spread of bacteria. As you have mentioned in your post, people can also wash their bags to prevent the spread of germs. Even washing the bags has its downsides though, as it does increase use of energy and water. So it is still hard to say whether or not cloth bags are better than plastic.

    Chemistry professor David Tyler has said that the paper industry produces a lot of pollution and compares this to the fact that “the petroleum industry, where we get our plastics, doesn’t waste anything.” [2] I find this an odd comparison because he is essentially comparing the pollution from the paper industry to the efficiency of the plastic-making industry. While having high efficiency is definitely a great thing, should we not compare the paper industry pollution to the plastic-making industry pollution instead? I feel that the pollution produced from the petroleum industry for making plastics is something we cannot ignore. For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the four major plastics produced in industry. We produce over 14 billion pounds of PVC per year. [5] However, the plants that produce PVC also emit vinyl chloride (which has found to be a human carcinogen) and “several other pollutants included on the list of more than 180 ‘hazardous air pollutants’ (HAP) specified under the Clean Air Act.” [6] I feel that the air pollution caused by plastics plants should be considered as a factor in this plastic versus reusable bags debate.

    Although there is no clear winner in this debate, I agree that instead of completely banning plastic and paper bags, there should be more education on recycling plastic bags and reducing wastes. Perhaps with more encouragement and readily available plastic bag recycling locations, people would be more inclined to recycle plastic bags instead of simply throwing them away.



  2. cdawes2013

    The City of Austin’s Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance is not a ban on plastic or paper bags. Rather, business establishments within the City Limits are now required to provide customers with more reusable options at checkout (1). This includes paper and plastic bags. Businesses can provide any of the following types of reusable bags:
    • Cloth, fabric or other woven bags
    • Plastic bags (at least 4 mil thick) with handles. “1 mil” is .001 inch. A 4-mil bag is about as thick as a freezer bag.
    • Paper bags made of at least 40% recycled content, with handles. At least 80% recycled content required by March 1, 2014. Handles are not required for paper bags that are smaller than 8 inches wide and 14 inches tall. (2)

    These bags are specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuses. You mentioned that it takes 28 times less energy to manufacture single-use plastic bags than reusable bags made from polypropylene (#5 plastic, also in drinking straws, medicine bottles, ketchup bottles and aerosol caps), and that in order to achieve the same amount of energy, you would need to use the reusable bags at least 28 times. Interestingly enough, the bag standards in this new ordinance require each reusable bag be durable enough to last at least 100 times, carrying 16 pounds. For this type of reusable bag, the energy required to make the bag is justified since the usage is approved at more than 3.5 times your suggested rate.

    It would be interesting to find out more about the other types of reusable bags that Austin is allowing retailers to provide, not just bags made from polypropylene. What about cloth or woven bags? What about paper bags made largely of recycled material? Does the manufacturing of other reusable bags require more than a hundred times more energy than single-use plastic bags? I wish you had provided a data source on your statement “most bags are not used over 28 times to recoup the energy versus a ‘traditional’ bag.” I’d be interested to find out if that were actually the case. I know I’ve used my reusable bags more than 28 times.

    Although it’s not cheap or easy, I agree that single-use plastic bags have a high reuse potential. They have opportunities for second lives as bathroom trashcan liners and pet waste bags. And although recovery rates are low (in the tens of percentages), they can be recycled. Plastic bags can become fleece jackets, door and window frames, fencing, decks, etc. (3). They can also be reprocessed and remade into new bags.

    However, this can be an expensive process and requires consumer participation, which, especially in Texas, has been extremely low. There are a multitude of designated stores where consumers can drop off their clean, dry thin-film bags. There are websites and phone apps that help you locate the nearest drop-off center ( I looked up my zip code and found 10 places to specifically recycle my single-use plastic bags, all under 3 miles from my house. Earth 911’s website also boasts of having the largest and most accurate recycling directory in the U.S. where you can locate a plastic bag recycling center. So when you said you wished there were more recycling centers for plastic bags, I think you were just missing information. There are plenty of places that serve that need, but consumers are either not aware do not go to the trouble of doing it. The access is there. The participation is not.

    I also disagree with your opinion that Austin didn’t consider the entire scope of ‘banning’ plastic bags. The fact is the City of Austin has been working on plastic bag management for 6 years. In 2007, the City Council directed the City Manager to determine best strategies for limiting single-use plastic bags and promoting compostable and renewable ones. The City began an 18-month “Austin’s Got a Brand New Bag” awareness campaign, partnering with the Texas Retailers Association (TRA) and Keep Austin Beautiful, encouraging consumer use of reusable bags. During this campaign they also gave out reusable bags and provided free plastic bag recycling to customers. Later in 2008, Austin Resource Recovery tested the feasibility of a curbside plastic bag recycling program in a pilot program called “Recycle the Bag.” After three months they discontinued the program, citing “low participation rates, increased collection costs, low volume per household, limited potential for an adequate return on investment, and presence of easily accessible recycling drop-off sites currently available to the community” (4). Then in 2010, Austin City Council requested further study on the impacts of plastic bags, and finally, in 2011, began developing what is now the Single-Use Plastic Bag Ordinance. Therefore, I believe they have looked at the problem, considered the whole scope and determined an effective way of progressing toward Zero Waste.

    I believe the plastic bag ordinance will require significant adjustments on both consumers and businesses, but I think we can do it. After all, Austin is a very environmentally responsible city and it’s a beautiful place to live. I believe Austinites will, after a period of time, adjust to the new way of shopping. And with the help of the required signage outside of all stores, will remember to bring their bags from inside their cars to inside the store.


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