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San Antonio begins plastic bag ban consideration

I very much look forward to seeing how this goes.


San Antonio spends about $1.3 million annually cleaning up plastic bags, while an estimated $25 million is spent across the state, [District 7 Councilman Cris] Medina’s Council Consideration Request says.

Council members Ray Lopez, Ivy Taylor, Rey Saldaña and Shirley Gonzales have signed Medina’s request, which ensures the proposal will be discussed by the council.

Medina’s proposal isn’t the city’s maiden voyage into dealing with plastic bags.

In 2011, leaders here kicked off the “Change is in the Bag” — a voluntary pilot program in which H-E-B, Target, Walgreens, JCPenny and Wal-Mart partnered with the city. Stores set out receptacles to collect used plastic bags. City leaders have said anecdotally that the voluntary program, which officially ended in December 2012, was a failure.

While recycling rates increased by about 30 percent, the usage of plastic bags didn’t drop. Officials had hoped to reduce usage by 25 percent.


Earlier this year, the San Antonio Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, a group appointed to advise the council on environmental issues, passed a resolution supporting a bag ban.

The resolution says a ban would improve community aesthetics, help tourism and property values and enhance public health and protect wildlife while lowering landfill and clean-up costs.

Texas Retailers Association CEO Ronnie Volkening said such bans are cumbersome for customers, threaten Texas jobs and don’t help the environment.

“A ban isn’t a progressive thought,” he said. “It shuts down innovation.”

Bag bans tend to focus on grocery stores and some big-box retailers but exempt many other types of plastic bags, including ice bags, bread bags, produce bags and other “plastic film,” such as dry-cleaning bags.

The city of Georgetown has implemented a program that allows residents to collect their single-use plastic bags in a yellow “stuffer” bag, which, once filled, can be tossed into their recycling carts. Volkening said workers at the recycling plant then pull the yellow bags to be recycled.

Single-stream recycling — the process employed by Georgetown and San Antonio — can’t handle plastic bags because they jam the sorting machine. Georgetown’s work-around allows residents to discard their bags with their soda cans and newspapers without jamming the sorting machine.

I don’t understand the expectation that bag usage would drop if recycling were made easier. The ready availability of recycling for aluminum cans and plastic bottles doesn’t have any effect on how much Diet Coke I drink. Perhaps if they’re measuring how many new bags were bought by retailers, that might tell us something useful. But I don’t see how the number of bags being used by customers would be a factor.

Recycling bags is an option I’ll return to in a minute. This Express News story goes into some more detail about the possibilities San Antonio is studying.

More than 150 localities across the U.S., including Brownsville and Austin, have bag regulations, according to the Surfrider Foundation, an advocate for the protection of oceans and beaches.

Medina, who hopes to have a specific policy recommendation within 90 days, said he favors a ban but would be open to a fee charged for bags.


As officials draft an ordinance, they will have plenty of models to examine. Cities have pursued various methods, all with the goal of cutting bag use and changing people’s bag behavior. Some ordinances target paper bags in addition to plastic. Some are outright bans, while in other cities, customers have to pay a fee if they need a bag from a retailer.

Officials in cities that passed ordinances said they faced challenges from retailers, chemical companies and bag manufacturers in addition to residents’ opposition.

But despite some initial confusion when the bans or fees first went into effect, they said they rarely hear complaints now and have found the bans are helping reduce the problems of bag litter.

“In initial conversations, there was some pushback,” said Megan Ponder, a policy analyst at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in Portland, Ore. “We haven’t seen a lot of pushback from the public recently.”

Portland’s first ordinance passed in 2011 and applied mainly to supermarkets and large pharmacies. It was expanded in 2012 to all retailers and food providers. Now, 5,000 businesses covered by the plastic-bag ban can only provide recycled paper bags or reusable bags.

(Bans tend to exempt bags used for produce and meat at grocery stores, newspapers and dry cleaning, among other purposes.)

The cities that say their policies have been successful mostly back that up with anecdotal evidence. In Seattle, initial surveys of businesses showed many are reporting using fewer bags and residents say not as many are floating around.

“In the downtown area, you really see none,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention at the solid waste utility in Seattle.


The Texas Retailers Association favors more wide-ranging efforts than bans that get cities, stores and consumers to come up with solutions that are “least disruptive to the marketplace,” said Ronnie Volkening, TRA’s president and CEO.

He said retailers and cities should expand public education campaigns to teach residents more about how to recycle and reuse their bags.

“In our view, bans are not comprehensive,” he said. “They are regressive in that, no matter how you slice it, the cost of either acquiring and maintaining, washing and keeping clean reusable bags is a cost borne disproportionately by lower-income people and families.”

To counter the cost, some cities with bag bans have given away thousands of free bags. H-E-B already gives out hundreds of thousands of free bags statewide every year, Campos said.

Groups that likely will support the measure include the San Antonio River Authority, which is left to clean up plastic bags in addition to other litter that gathers in and along the region’s waterways after storms.

It would be nice if there were more than just anecdotal data about the effect of the various bag bans and fees that have been passed in other cities so far. I’m sure some approaches are more effective than others, but in the absence of any objective metrics, how can we know which way is best? I’d hate to put a lot of time, effort, and political capital into a plan that doesn’t do much. I’m generally skeptical of complaints from business associations in situations like this because they pretty much always complain. They do have a point about the bans not being comprehensive, in that they only affect some businesses and some bags. This is where I come back to the recycling option. You can recycle plastic bags, you just can’t put them in single stream collection bins because they gum up the separators. Georgetown has one solution for that, but it obviously involves a comprehensive education push and a commitment by residents to take an extra step. You have to do that now, in Houston or anywhere else, to collect plastic bags and wrappings of all kinds and then drop them off for recycling. Georgetown’s solution involves less effort, but it’s still a change of habit for people, and that’s never easy. Still, I feel like solving the single stream collection problem so that bags can be treated like any other recyclable has the potential to have the biggest effect. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I agree with the E-N editorial board that more study is needed, and I believe that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if something better comes along later.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    Interesting how a country founded on freedom and liberty has become the country of ban this, then ban that, then ban the other. While it might feel good to ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that despoil landscapes everywhere, perhaps we should enforce laws against littering.

    The parallel to the gun grabbers is clear. Because some are irresponsible with their bags, we must punish ALL bag owners and users. Maybe San Antonio should focus on enforcing the existing law against littering before they start banning stuff. In fact, maybe Houston could take a lesson from that. Imagine if we pulled all the speed traps off the freeways (various departments), and reassigned those officers to duty catching illegal dumpers.

    The city might look a little less like a speed monitored trash dump that way.