Friday, January 16, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City orders study on bag ban that state may toss

Amid concerns that state leadership will take steps to limit city ordinances such as Austin’s plastic bag ban, the Zero Waste Advisory Commission has instructed city staff to study the ban in time to send the results to the state legislature.

The commission unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday requesting that the Austin Resource Recovery Department complete a study of the results of the city’s Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance by no later than May 1.

Chair Rick Cofer, who took the lead on the resolution, referred to the deadline as the “drop-dead” date for the study to be effective. “It will be very important to have a timely report that can go in front of legislative committees, so we’re sort of right in the bull’s-eye,” he said.

“We’ve had a strong interest in completing a report to evaluate the success of that ordinance,” Cofer later told the Monitor. “That has become much more timely, because the legislature is in town and we have a governor who seems intent on doing away with local control, especially when it comes to things like the Austin single-use bag ordinance.”

The 2015 legislative session began Tuesday and will end June 1. Governor-elect Greg Abbott, who will take office Jan. 20, issued an opinion as attorney general last fall that an ordinance like Austin’s could be in violation of state law. Last week, as the Austin-American Statesman reported, Abbott criticized local bans on plastic bags, fracking and tree-cutting as “eroding the Texas model.”

Cofer said he believes the study will show “just how successful (Austin’s) ordinance has been,” and that “decisions are best made locally.”

“If Austin wants a single-use bag ordinance, and Fort Stockton wants one but Tyler doesn’t, that’s OK,” Cofer said. “And if people don’t want to live in a town that has a bag ordinance, they don’t have to, and that’s what choice means.”

Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert told the commission that he understands the need to obtain the information as quickly as possible and hopes to have the report available in April, but would like to have a third party conduct the study.

“In order to have an independent study done that isn’t tainted with the perception of a bias, I’d like to contract it out,” Gedert said. “We have talked internally on how to speed that up.”

Gedert later told the Monitor that he believes there has been “at least a 95 percent reduction” in the amount of bags distributed each year since the ordinance went into effect in March 2013.

Gedert added that his staff no longer see plastic bags during daily downtown litter pickups, Watershed Protection Department staff no longer find them during annual cleanups of Lady Bird Lake, Austin Water Utility staff find few to none in the water systems that they manage, nonprofits see fewer in local creeks, and there are fewer sightings of plastic bags flying across the highway or getting caught in trees on windy days.

Before the ordinance went into effect, Gedert said, these were all common problems. “We don’t have a very precise measurement of before and after,” he acknowledged. “But the anecdotal, visual evidence really demonstrates that the environment is a lot cleaner.”

Prompted by Commissioner Dave Sullivan, the commission also requested data on whether the ordinance has affected retail revenues by encouraging consumers to shop at locations in municipalities that don’t have a bag ordinance.

“We had heard complaints from the business community that there were some losses of revenue from around the edges of the city because people were shopping elsewhere,” Sullivan said. “I think it would be good to get some true numbers about that.”

City Council passed the bag ordinance in March 2012. It applies primarily to the single-use plastic bags that grocery stores commonly distribute, though there are exemptions for certain uses, such as taking prepared food out at a restaurant.

Photo by Andrea Westmoreland from DeLand, United States (Great Blue Heron Swallows Fish in Plastic Bag!) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Resource Recovery: Formerly Solid Waste Services. The department in charge of handling solid waste disposal, recycling, and--in what is still a pilot program--curb-side composting for the City of Austin.

City of Austin bag ban: This 2013 ordinance prohibited single-use plastic bags in the city.

City of Austin Zero Waste Advisory Commission: An Austin City Council advisory commission. Its members are charged to "[r]eview and analyze the policies and resources relating to solid waste management in the city and advise council on solid waste management policies and resources." Formerly the Solid Waste Advisory Commission.

Texas Legislature: The state’s legislative governing body composed of the House and Senate.

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