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Tyson Sowell: The Problem of Single-Use Bags

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

On Wednesday, June 20, Houston City Council approved a budget amendment to

“address littering by plastic bags or phasing out plastic bags city-wide. This proposal will be taken to the appropriate committee for proper vetting, consideration and input from businesses, residents and environmental advocates.”

Tyson Sowell

Texas Campaign for the Environment supports the phasing out of single-use bags and advocates for reusable bags. Brownsville was the first city in Texas to address the pollution impacts of single-use bags. After a year of study, the City of Brownsville decided to limit both paper and plastic bags, even though they were home to a major paper bag manufacturer. Soon after, South Padre Island and Fort Stockton, in West Texas, passed local ordinances limiting single-use bags and, most recently, (after an extensive study) Austin too found limiting single-use bags makes economic and environmental sense.

Plastic pollution in the US has increased by 165% since 1969 making plastic pollution the third most abundant pollution type. It is estimated that Houstonians consume 1.9 million plastic bags per day or more than 693 million plastic bags per year.

So, why not just recycle them?

Nationwide recycling rates for single-use bags are very poor – 60% to 90% of paper bags and 95% of plastic bags are NOT recycled. Additionally, voluntary recycling programs for plastic bags have been unsuccessful in keeping them out of landfills, waterways, trees, and storm drains. For example, Austin’s plastic bag recycling pilot program, at its best after distributing 900,000 reusable bags, was only able to achieve a 27% recycling rate. If the City of Houston followed this route, assuming they could achieve this same level of success, 1.4 million bags per day, would still be free to roam our streets and swim in our waterways.

As Houston grows, its waste problem grows with it and phasing out single-use bags is a step in the right direction to reduce our waste and keep our city beautiful. Buffalo Bayou is heavily polluted with plastic waste and continuing to ignore this problem will not make it go away but will make it worse. Even though paper bags biodegrade, they use more energy to manufacture and transport and are not any better for the environment overall.

Houston is the only city of the ten largest cities in Texas that does not provide curbside recycling for all of its residents. The recent budget crunch has been blamed time and time again for the City’s inability to expand this service. Phasing out plastic bags would save the City about $2 million per year which could be used to expand recycling and get Houston on the path to a green, clean future.

It’s time for Houston to get serious about its growing waste future. It’s time to bag the bags.

Tyson Sowell is the Houston Program Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment – a statewide, grassroots, environmental policy advocacy organization. You can learn more at texasenvironment.org, at facebook.com/texasenvironment and follow on twitter at twitter.com/txenvironment.

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10 Comments

  1. Anne says:

    I don’t understand how banning plastic bags will save the city enough money to do something it is already unwilling to do (offer curbside recycling like every other city this century). Where did the $2M figure come from?

  2. Lone Star Ma says:

    Corpus is working on this, too, but slowly. I agree that it needs to be done.

  3. Tyson Sowell says:

    Anne,
    There is nothing to suggest that the city is unwilling to expand curbside. The problem is that the city is in a budget crunch and is unwilling to pass a fee to pay for it, which is purely political. City officials are afraid that such a fee would be political suicide. I would argue otherwise but until we get the data to prove this, the city probably won’t institute a garbage fee.

    The $2M figure is from the City of Austin’s Resource Recovery Study in 2011 that estimated that plastic bag cleanup costs the city about $1 per person per year. The City of Houston proper has about 2.1 million people so plastic bag cleanup costs the city about $2M per year. Arguably this estimate is extremely conservative given that the Houston metropolitan area has more than 5.6 million people many of whom shop in Houston even if they don’t live here. Also, since the wind knows no bounds, plastic bags from other areas could potential end up in the city’s boundaries and have to be dealt with by the City of Houston.

    Thank you for your question.

    Sincerely,
    Tyson

  4. RBearSAT says:

    One thing that’s often overlooked in these bag ban ordinances is that you can’t ban all plastic bags. Convenience stores under a certain size, food delivery, medical packaging, the list goes on. So by trying to ban the bags you really create even more complexity and challenges. Another issue involves visitors to the city. Think of all the tourists that visit Houston annually who might not be aware of the bag ban. When they show up at the store without a reusable bag, what do they do.

    Focusing on recycling is really the best way to go. Follow the mantra – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. That will go a long ways. Austin’s recycling campaign was only in place for about a year or so. Recycling education and implementation take several years until the public changes behavior. Consider plastic bottles and how long it’s taken to get that to the level it is.

  5. Tyson Sowell says:

    RBearSAT,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Yes, it is true that in passing these ordinances one must make some concessions. In an ideal world all plastic would be gone but just because we haven’t made this reality yet, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t scrap the idea entirely. Things take steps and a single-use bag ban is just one big step in the right direction even if concessions must be made.

    However, I don’t think that a single-use bag ban creates complexity even if some bags are exempt. For instance, the Austin ban allows for plastic produce bags. I don’t see how this is complex or challenging.

    The issue of visitors and tourists has been raised in every city that has passed a single-use bag ordinance and this has not been a significant enough issue to dissuade them – including Los Angeles, a bigger city than Houston. Like Houstonians, visitors to Houston can purchase an inexpensive reusable bag at any grocery store and they are often given away for free.

    Yes, recycling is great but for plastic bags it is a huge problem. Not only are plastic bag recycling rates extremely low – Austin’s pilot program was only able to achieve a 27% recycling rate – but many recyclers don’t want to, or will not, deal with them because they are a major hassle. They clog machinery costing recyclers valuable time and money. Plastic bag recycling campaigns have proven to be a failure and more costly.

    I am curious, what figures do you have for plastic bottle recycling? The figures I have suggest that plastic bottle recycling isn’t any better than Austin’s 27% plastic bag recycling rate. Houston’s recycling rate for municipal solid waste – household items you put on the curb – minus sludge – which the city includes in their recycling totals – is only 18%. This 18% includes plastic bottles.

    It has taken a long time for Houston to get to this paltry 18% recycling rate, which is why plastic bags need to go. If we decide go the way of recycling plastic bag, how long will it take Houston to get to 18% and how much environmental harm will pursuing this course of action cause and how much money will taxpayers lose?

    Again, thank you for your comment.

    Sincerely,
    Tyson

  6. Ross says:

    Tyson, why do you think it’s OK for you to force those of us who hate reusable bags to adhere to your vision of the future? I like the single use bags – they are convenient, and I reuse them for a number of purposes. I seldom dispose of a plastic bag that doesn’t have trash in it. If I have items for one bag, I don’t use one. If reusable bags fit your lifestyle, fine, go ahead and use them, but, please, get the heck out of my life, it’s none of your business.

    This is what I hate about the Greens and the Progressives, they have this overwhelming need to make the rest of us fit their worldview, even if it isn’t based in reality.

  7. CathleenY says:

    Tyson, I just discovered your blog. Please keep speaking out.

    It’s been proven in cities worldwide, that if you ban free plastic bags and impose a fee (sure we can call it a tax) when people insist on receiving their goods in plastic bags, that the use of single use plastic bags is all but eliminated. Problem solved (including for those that still want the convenience of plastic bags).

    The documentary “Bag It The Movie” gives compelling fact-based reasons why plastic needs to be significantly reduced (reuse and recycle is not working).

    Why is it OK to force others to adhere to new policies such as these? Whether we want to admit it or not, survival of the human race depends on it. It is all of our responsibility, and it means we must change some of our habits – convenient or not.

  8. […] my previous article, I talked about the phasing out of single-use check-out bags being just one step the City needs to […]

  9. […] my previous article, I talked about the phasing out of single-use check-out bags being just one step the City needs to […]

  10. Tyson Sowell says:

    CathleenY,

    Thank you for your comment and support.

    -Tyson