Austin’s Plastic Bag Ban Worse for Environment Than Bags It Outlaws

By Emily Richards | June 15, 2015 | 4:10pm EDT


(AP File photo)

( In an effort to protect the environment, Austin,Texas passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in 2013.

However, a recent review concludes that Austin’s bag ban has backfired, creating more negative effects on the environment than the plastic bags it outlawed.

“Beginning March 1, 2013, no person may provide single-use carryout bags at any City facility, City-sponsored event, or any event held on City property,” the ordinance reads. “Beginning March 1, 2013, a business establishment within the City limits may not provide single-use carryout bags to its customers or to any person.”

Two years after the bag ban was implemented, the city asked the Austin Resource Recovery group to investigate its effectiveness. Their June 10 report, written by Aaron Waters, states that while the ban was successful in lowering the amount of single-use plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene in city landfills, it was actually worse for the environment overall.

“The amount of single use plastic bags has been reduced, both in count and by weight,” Waters states. “However, in their place, the larger 4 mil [4/1,000ths of an inch] bags have replaced them as the go to standard when the reusable bag is left at home. This reusable plastic bag, along with the paper bag, has a very high carbon footprint compared to the single use bag.”

The 4 mil reusable bags are often made from non-recycled low-density polyethylene and require more resources to manufacture than the single-use bags, Waters explained. Many of the heavier gauge 4 mil bags are also shipped from overseas, which increases their carbon footprint compared to the single-use bags.

Waters also reported that the ordinance increases costs for both consumers and retailers. Consumers are spending more money purchasing reusable bags and some businesses are losing customers due to the ordinance.

For example, a Here Everything’s Better (HEB) grocery store within Austin city limits must adhere to the ordinance. However, it is surrounded by neighboring towns that have no such restrictions.  

“The close proximity of the other grocery stores has proven problematic for the HEB in this area of Austin, as they have reported that upon the implementation of the Single Use Bag Ordinance, this store lost between $60,000 to $70,000 per week in revenue as a result of customers choosing to shop at a store which would provide single use bags,” Waters reports.

Waters recommended that the city eliminate the 4 mil reusable bags, educate consumers on recycling, and encourage surrounding areas to ban plastic bags as well.

There has been some backlash within Texas in the nine jurisdictions that currently have some type of bag ban.The Texas Retailers Association initially sued Austin over its bag ordinance, but later dropped the case. However, earlier this month the Dallas City Council voted to repeal its plastic bag ordinance after a group of bag manufactures filed a similar lawsuit.

Then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also argued that state law prohibits local governments from enacting such ordinances, which have been passed in nearly 200 cities and towns in 17 states. A ban on plastic bags was first imposed at the state level in California.

“Texas is being Californianized and you may not even be noticing it,” now Governor Greg Abbott said earlier this year. “It’s being done at the city level with bag bans, fracking bans, tree-cutting bans. We’re forming a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

June 2014 report by the Reason Foundation also found that “for the main environmental effects of concern—i.e. non-renewable energy consumption, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions—HDPE [ high-density polyethylene] plastic bags are superior to the alternative options currently available….

“Advocates of restrictions on plastic bags frequently assert that their preferred option is for people to use reusable bags. When the impact of washing such bags is taken into account, the environmental effect of such bags is likely worse than HDPE plastic bags—especially in places such as California where fresh water is relatively scarce.”

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