Austin: Checkout bags must now be reusable/recyclable

City says new ordinance to affect 17,500 businesses

Starting March 1, shoppers won't be automatically offered thin plastic bags at Austin checkout counters.

This is one result of the City of Austin's new single-use carryout bag ordinance. It is intended to reduce pollution and bring the city closer to its zero-waste goals. Austin City Council approved the ordinance in March 2012.

In a nutshell, the ordinance forbids most retailers and businesses from offering single-use carryout bags—the common thin plastic bag or handleless paper bags that are not made of recycled materials—at the checkout counter.

There are exceptions to the ordinance. Grocery store produce bags and some types of restaurant takeout bags, among others, can still be thin plastic bags.

Businesses are encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags from now on. Stores can provide reusable bags but may charge a small fee for them. Stores are not required to provide any bags.

Customers who forget their bags may receive handled paper bags made of recycled materials or thicker plastic bags that are easier to recycle.

"The general feedback we've heard through a pollster is that people support a ban on single-use bags," Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert said. "When we started having the public meetings, people were concerned about bags disappearing from their selection, so it changed from a plastic bag ban ordinance to an ordinance regulating what types of bags could be offered."

On Feb. 19, the City of Sunset Valley approved a similar, but not identical, ordinance regulating carryout bags. The Sunset Valley ordinance is scheduled to take effect Sept. 1.

Grocery stores

H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Sweet said the supermarket planned to give away 700,000 free reusable bags in the days leading up to the ordinance taking effect.

"We'll continue to have reusable bag giveaway programs after the ordinance takes effect," she said.

H-E-B customers can buy a variety of reusable bags for 25 cents each, Sweet said.

H-E-B received permission from the city to sell single-use bags as a last resort. If an H-E-B customer forgets his or her bags, single-use bags may be purchased for $1—the price of four reusable bags, Sweet added.

The supermarket, which also owns Central Market, is dedicating the money from all single-use bag sales toward its reusable bag giveaway program.

The ordinance will not significantly affect the Austin locations of Whole Foods Market; the stores' paper checkout bags already meet ordinance standards, spokeswoman Rachel Malish said. The supermarket offers a 10-cents-per-bag discount to shoppers who bring in reusable bags.

Wheatsville Co-Op is phasing out its plastic bags and offers paper bags made of entirely recycled content, Brand Manager Raquel Dadomo said.

The cooperative sells a variety of reusable bags and refunds customers a nickel for each reusable bag shoppers bring in.

"We end up giving about $300 a week in bag credits," she said. "That amounts to about 6,000 bags reused. It's amazing."

As of mid-February, Randalls was in the process of finalizing bag options, spokeswoman Connie Yates said.

Local reactions

Rebecca Melancon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, said she has heard a variety of responses from alliance members.

She said no one is entirely happy, but some people are trying to look on the bright side.

"For some, they're viewing [the new bags] as more expensive, which it is considerably, but asking themselves how can they use this as a marketing opportunity."

Members who had used biodegradable plastic bags have asked whether the new thicker bags, which are not biodegradable, are better for the environment, she said.

AIBA plans to help businesses sell any leftover single-use bags by connecting them with businesses outside of Austin.

Stacy Guidry, Austin Zero Waste Alliance chairwoman, said the ordinance gives consumers a way to make a small change in their lives while making a huge impact on protecting the planet. She said businesses also benefit by not having to provide single-use bags.

Christian Lane, co-founder of zero-waste grocery store in.gredients in East Austin, said March 1 was "an important day for personal responsibility and wise stewardship of our limited resources."

Suresh Sitapara, owner of Man Pasand Grocery in Southwest Austin, said he plans to give out reusable bags with the store's name on them. He hopes the bags will serve as free advertising. He said he supports the ordinance because it reduces the amount of plastic bags in the environment.

Goodwill Industries of Central Texas stopped thin offering plastic bags and customers responded well, spokesman Zubin Segal said.

By mid-February, some businesses throughout the city had already placed "Don't forget your reusable bags" signs in their parking lots.

Background

The City of Austin is committed to reducing the amount of waste it sends to landfills by 90 percent by 2040.

In 2011, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said a pilot program aimed to reduce single-use plastic bags was not meeting Leffingwell's goals, Gedert said.

City Council asked staff to prepare an ordinance that would ban single-use plastic bags. Several public hearings and discussions followed, and the ordinance evolved based on public feedback.

Austin City Councilwoman Laura Morrison said there were many trade-offs to consider when crafting the ordinance.

"There were a lot of conversations about recyclable bags, 'Should we or should we not?'" she said. "If you cannot reuse it many times, which is [the case] for the thinner plastic bags, then the impact on the environment gets to be a big deal.

"There was lots of looking for where do we find the right balance in terms of protecting the environment and future and making it workable," she said.

For more information on the ordinance, visit www.bringitaustin.com.