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City’s proposed bag ban gains toe hold with some area merchants

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 by Michael Kanin

At least one major area retailer could be ready to work with a potential City of Austin ban on plastic bags. Another is piloting something of its own ban.


Quoting a news story, H-E-B spokesperson Leslie Sweet told In Fact Daily via email, “the Mayor was quoted as saying that the decision to have a ban has basically been made.” She added, “If that is the case, then H-E-B is committed to working with the City to develop a balanced and thoughtful solution for all single-use shopping bags that will truly drive progress for the environment, serve our customers and support the City’s waste management goals.”


Sweet’s statements come as reaction to the concept of a plastic bag ban continues to filter through local media. This includes concerns from the city’s residential recycling contractors who say that the bags foul their systems and a reminder from local political hand Mark Littlefield about informal polling that suggests at least half of city residents would be in favor of a ban. Other polls find slightly less support.


Meanwhile, the Walgreen’s drug store chain is roughly two months into an effort that removed all free checkout bags from five Austin-area stores. The program is not coordinated with a potential city ban but Austin Resource Recovery director Bob Gedert told In Fact Daily that the firm participated in a stakeholders meeting held in the office of Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.


Customers who frequent any of the corporation’s other area stores—or, indeed, any of the rest of its 7700 franchises–still have the option of free bags at checkout.


Walgreen’s spokesperson Robert Elfinger told In Fact Daily via email that the chain has “anecdotally…experienced a number of customer complaints” about his company’s pilot program. Still, he notes that because “the test program was put into place during September…it will take more time to evaluate its acceptance by customers.”


The City of Austin’s long look at plastic bags dates back to 2007 when concerns about litter prompted that City Council to begin a look at alternatives. That was followed by a 2008 pilot program that found a handful of larger retailers attempting to reduce their plastic bag use.


On Aug. 4 of this year, the Council voted to instruct City Manager Marc Ott’s office to develop an ordinance that would ban the bags. Since then, city staff has conducted public input sessions. The latest of these took place on Oct. 24.


Before that meeting, Mayor Lee Leffingwell told a group of reporters that the decision to ban the bags “has basically been made.” However, during the event, Austin Resource Recovery director Bob Gedert told In Fact Daily that the ordinance was not yet written. 


The City of Brownsville banned plastic bags in late 2009. Sweet says Austin “can learn a lot from their approach.”


“(They) pioneered a comprehensive solution to this issue,” she wrote. “Brownsville’s model bans both paper and plastic single-use bags but allows consumers to pay an environmental fee at checkout for non-reusable bags if they happen to forget to bring a reusable bag to the store.”


“This is a thoughtful policy that protects the environment, eliminates waste, and doesn’t present too much of a hardship on consumers,” she continued. “And in the few months since it was implemented, we’ve seen non-reusable bag use in Brownsville drop by 85% with our customers.”


Though some retailer groups expressed concern that Austin’s ban could hurt private efforts to recycle plastic bags, the city seems uninterested in that idea. A handout from the Oct. 24 meeting tells residents that “plastic bag recycling rates across the nation are below 5%” and suggests that there is not enough data to support the notion that local efforts at the practice resulted in a significant increase.

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