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Report may revive debate over possible ban on plastic bags

Thursday, January 13, 2011 by Mark Richardson

A report out this week on the cost to taxpayers for processing plastic bags, requested by the Council last year, is likely to rekindle the debate over whether the city should ban single-use plastic bags


According to Bob Gedert, director of the Solid Waste Services Department, the city is currently paying about $850,000 a year to clean up and manage the kind of plastic bags used at grocery and department stores for customer purchases. However, he said that if the city were to implement a curbside plastic bag recycling program, the cost could skyrocket to $2.7 million a year.


With estimates that Austin residents are using about 263 million bags a year, the report puts the city’s cost of recycling them at about 1 cent per bag. Figure in the cost to businesses of cleaning up the mess the bags leave on their property and elsewhere in the environment, and the cost rises to about 2 cents a bag. And none of that reflects the cost to wildlife and their habitats, the report added.


When Gedert sent the report to Council and the city manager this week, he noted that he considers his cost estimates to be low.


“There are unmitigated environmental impacts that come with the use of plastic bags that cannot be quantified,” he said in a presentation to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission Tuesday night. “There’s no real way to know just how it affects the local environment and what that costs.”


Programs to recycle bags have been a tough sell so far. An 18-month study begun in 2008 by several large retailers in the Austin area did manage to increase the amount of bags being recycled but did not meet its stated goal of cutting the number of bags going to the landfill by 50 percent. Another city-sponsored pilot program using separate collection bins for plastic bags in selected neighborhoods also failed to meet its goals, according to SWAC officials.


Gedert noted that his department currently has no funds for, and is not planning to add, a curbside recycling program or add plastic bags to the Single Stream recycling program. He said recycling companies cannot handle plastic bags at their processing facilities, so they must be collected and handled separately.


The report drew strong opinions from all sides of the debate. Industries that make the bags warn that a ban would cost hard-working Texans their jobs, while environmentalists say the cost of continuing to put the bags into landfills and the environment is already too high. Somewhere in the middle is the Texas Retailers Association, which is against an outright ban but wants to expand voluntary recycling programs.


According to the report, plastic bags make up about 2.1 percent of Austin’s waste stream, which works out to about 84 cents per month per household.


Two other Texas cities, Brownsville and Fort Stockton, have already banned the use of plastic bags. Other cities are considering a ban, and environmentalists say they are watching closely to see how the early bans work over time


The report out this week is the first of two parts, Gedert said; the second half of the report, due out this summer, will look at how other cities are handling plastic bags and could make recommendations for what steps Austin should take.

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