Broyles: What you need to know ahead of Austin’s single-use plastic bag ban

Are your reusable bags ready?

For almost a year, you’ve been hearing about the city’s ordinance that will ban single-use plastic bags, but with the rules going into effect in less than two months, it’s time to start looking at how the ban will — or won’t — change how you shop.

First, a reminder: The ordinance isn’t an outright ban on plastic bags.

“It’s not a ban on plastic bags; it’s just regulating the types of bags that the stores can provide,” says Lauren Hammond, a spokeswoman for Austin Resource Recovery, the city’s waste management department. “Businesses still have options as to what they can provide, but they just have to meet the requirements.”

Yes, you read that right: Austin hasn’t passed a ban on all plastic bags, just the single-use ones. In addition to reusable paper bags that have handles and are made with recycled content, stores can offer reusable plastic bags with handles that are at least 4 mil thick. (This is an industry term for a plastic bag’s thickness. Traditional grocery bags are usually between .65 and .8 mil, and 4 mil is about as thick as a freezer bag.) “It is the businesses’ decision if they want to charge for those bags,” Hammond says.

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She emphasized that consumers can still bring in whatever type of bag they’d like to the store, including single-use bags.

City officials have been working on methods to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags going into landfills in some form or another for at least five years, according to Hammond, including a pilot program to pick up plastic bags through curbside collection and a partnership with grocery stores and the Texas Retailers Association to decrease the number of single-use plastic bags used and increase the number of bags brought back to the store to be recycled.

“It’s a litter issue, it’s a quality of life issue, it’s an environmental issue,” she says, citing the city’s goal to have zero waste by 2040. “Getting people to adopt a reusable lifestyle is an important step in zero waste, and reusable shopping is definitely part of that.”

The reusable plastic bags allowed in the ordinance are four times as thick as most of the single-use bags and cost at least 10 times as much, according to Mark McClure, vice president of operations at International Plastics, a South Carolina bag manufacturer and distributor. “Truthfully, this ban does little on litter,” he says. “Trash doesn’t make itself garbage on the side of the road. People are still going to litter.” He cites plastic bottles as a bigger culprit for filling landfills and said he’d like to see cities provide an incentive — instead of additional fees — for curbside recycling, including for single-use bags.

Retailers

The ordinance takes effect in about six weeks, and retailers are already getting ready for the transition. Many have not announced what they will charge, if at all, for any reusable paper and plastic bags they carry, but if they choose not to charge for the bags, they’ll have to pass along the cost for giving them away somewhere else in the store.

H-E-B, which has 25 stores, including two Central Markets, that will be affected by the ordinance, will continue to charge for all reusable bags, according to H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Sweet, but the store plans to offer more than a dozen different kinds of bags with all types of pricing, starting at the 4 mil reusable plastic bags allowed in the ordinance. The paper bags currently offered at H-E-Bs in the area do not meet the ordinance’s resuability requirements and will not be offered after March 1.

“There are so many customers that this affects,” Sweet says. “It’s a behavioral change that takes time to adjust to.” The store plans to host consumer education events and bag giveaways around the time of the transition to help shoppers understand how the ordinance will affect their trips to grocery stores.

Many retailers are rethinking the bagging area and process, too. Sweet says that H-E-B employees will use a pull-out shelf underneath the check-stand to place the bags on, which will make it easier to move products from the collection area at the end of the conveyor belt into the bags. All H-E-B employees will receive additional training on how to answer customers’ questions about the new rules and how best to pack the various kinds of allowable bags, Sweet says.

A spokesperson for Walmart said that though he didn’t have any specific information about whether stores would charge for the allowed plastic or paper bags, they intend to comply with the ordinance and offer “a convenient and low cost option.”

Hammond says that the city is working with the approximately 17,500 businesses that are estimated to be affected by this ordinance to help them understand what items are exempt, alternative bag options and whether they need to apply for a hardship variance, which would give them a six-month exemption.

Another change since the City Council passed the ordinance is that restaurants will be allowed to use single-use plastic bags “where necessary to prevent moisture damage,” such as with soups and sauces, but they’ll have to use recyclable paper bags for other prepared foods.

Exempt from the ordinance are dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags and bags used by charities to distribute food items, clothing or household goods. Pharmacies can continue to use paper bags for medical items.

The city hosted a training session in November, which you can watch in its entirety at http://bit.ly/Uu3EPh, and will host another in early February, Hammond says. Although there are some fines the city can assess to retailers for noncompliance, up to a Class C misdemeanor and $2,000, she says they are focusing their efforts right now on outreach and education to businesses.

Shoppers

Anthony Deck, who lives in Southeast Austin, bought a handful of reusable bags a while ago and says he was really good at remembering them at first. “But then I got lazy,” he said on a chilly day last week leaving the H-E-B on Riverside Drive. He was carrying a single reusable bag filled with purchases that would have filled three or four single-use plastic bags. He said he hates the idea of all those bags going into a landfill and that ahead of the ordinance going into effect, he’s trying to get back into the reusable bag habit.

Jennifer Crawford, who was at the store with her 4-year-old son, recently moved back to Austin from South Korea, where her husband was stationed for the military and where the majority of retailers haven’t issued plastic bags since 2010. Crawford hadn’t yet heard of Austin’s ordinance, but because she’d already lived in a place where customers had gotten used to not using plastic bags, she wasn’t worried about making the transition again.

Austinite Nina Wiggins has been using reusable bags for many years now, and she’s so accustomed to bringing them that she rarely forgets. She likes the sturdy wax-coated bags with a flat bottom because she can wipe them clean, and she keeps them folded up in a drawer so she can grab them all at once on her way out the door.

The cheap reusable bags can be tempting simply because of the cost, usually about $1, but the weaving rips easily and they just don’t hold up for heavy duty shopping, she says. (She also has a large insulated reusable bag for ice cream and other frozen items. For other tips on which bags to buy and how to clean them, see the sidebar on page D1.)

Some stores, such as Whole Foods Market and Sprouts, currently give customers a discount for bringing in reusable bags, and a Whole Foods spokeswoman says the store plans to continue a 10-cent-per-bag discount. Whole Foods pulled single-use plastic bags from its stores in 2008, and it will continue to carry the reusable paper bags found in stores now.

Bag businesses

Even with the paper and plastic exceptions, the coming surge of interest in reusable bags is great news to companies such as Blue Avocado, a local business that has been selling washable reusable bags, many of which are made from recycled plastic bottles, on a national scale since 2009.

Co-founder Paige Davis says that with bag ordinances similar to Austin’s going into effect across the country, and a general consumer shift from disposable products to more reusable products, the company is on track to more than triple revenue this year, allowing more impact and more jobs in Austin. This year, the company plans to add a men’s line with local designer Ross Bennett.

But the opportunities aren’t limited to bag designers or manufacturers. Reusable bags, both canvas and durable plastic, have always been a popular marketing tool because they are essentially mobile advertisements.

Many of the bags that the grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market sell have their own logos on them, but other companies are getting in on the action. Happy Hemp owner Tara Miko Grayless, who sells raw and toasted hemp seeds at local farmers’ markets and stores, now sells her bulk orders in a reusable bag with her logo on it. The bag is made with hemp fabric, which has a lighter environmental impact than cotton, a crop that is typically grown with high inputs of pesticide.

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