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Will Austin stores restock single-use plastic bags now that the city’s ban is lifted?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018 by Mose Buchele, KUT

The city of Austin says it will end a ban on free single-use plastic bags at stores and restaurants. It’s a response to a state Supreme Court ruling against a similar ban in Laredo. But repealing the ordinance, commonly known as the “bag ban,” might not mean every store will start handing them out again.

“In Austin, where people shop their environmental values, I think large retailers are going to continue the policy of not giving away single-use plastic bags for free,” said Rick Cofer, one of the people who spearheaded Austin’s bag ban while he served on the city’s solid waste advisory commission.

At least in the short term, his prediction holds true. HEB is still selling reusable bags, saying it will “thoughtfully evaluate the issue to ensure we’re making the best decisions for our customers and the communities we serve.”

Randall’s has issued a similar statement, and Fiesta Mart continues to sell reusable bags, though it has not replied to a request for comment.

Ranch 88 and MT Supermarket also told KUT they were not giving out single-use bags. Other grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have long had policies that complied with the “bag ban” and are expected to continue with them.

But that’s not to say disposable plastic bags aren’t returning to Austin. Convenience stores seem to be the shops that are re-introducing them. After all, whatever their downside, the bags are convenient.

So, why convenience stores but not big grocery stores? It could be that selling reusable bags has turned into good business in Austin.

“Large retailers are going to do what they think is best for the bottom line in a particular market,” said Cofer.

We don’t know how much Austin stores have made by selling reusable bags. But similar bans in other cities have shown it can be lucrative. A small fee on plastic bags in Dallas that lasted only about a half a year brought in around $500,000 to a city environmental program.

In California, requiring stores to sell reusable bags has brought them “tens of millions” of dollars.

It stands to reason that Austin’s supermarkets are interested in keeping that revenue coming, though they may still opt to go back to disposable bags.

“That’s what happened in Dallas,” said Corey Troiani. He worked on Dallas’s short-lived bag ordinance with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We had stores that were immediately putting (single-use) bags back in the checkout counters. And we went right back to the status quo.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Julia Reihs/KUT.

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