Austin, Texas is now considering a ban on plastic shopping bags, making it the latest city to debate paper vs. plastic.
Although cheap for retailers and convenient for the public, environmentalists say plastic bags are a costly burden to taxpayers. But plastic bag makers argue that attempted bans are a misguided effort to control consumer behavior, undercutting an important industry.
In June, Austin's Solid Waste Services Department embarked on a 90-day study that will determine the overall cost of plastic bags from the point of manufacturing to the moment they hit the landfill. When the study is complete in September, Austin City Council will determine if the tax dollars devoted to plastic bags outweigh their added convenience.
Austin's Democratic mayor, Lee Leffingwell, introduced the idea of this city ordinance against plastic bags in Austin.
"Say you throw your bag into recycling. Once it gets into the recycling machine, it gets stuck in the gears, so it ends up we have to take extra time to pull the bags out," said Amy Everhart, policy director for the mayor of Austin. "That's what the study's geared towards: figuring out how much it costs to deal with them."
San Francisco conducted a similar study that demonstrated plastic bags cost up to 17 cents apiece in tax dollars.
Until the Austin study findings are released, retailers will continue to disperse the bags by the handful, and the resolution will remain in limbo.
"To earn the green reputation we have [in this] city, we need to take a leadership role," said Stacy Guidry, Program Assistant for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a grassroots environmental advocacy organization. "We're not living up to our reputation, and we need to take more action."
San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Brownsville, Texas, have already made changes to their plastic bag policies, and Dallas, Portland, Ore., and the entire state of California are currently considering changes.
Grocers in Washington D.C. now charge shoppers a five cent fee for each plastic bag they take home. In the first month alone, the measure decreased the use of plastic bags in D.C. by 84 percent.
With city councils across the country advocating for reusable bags instead of plastic, the plastic bag industry is mounting a strong response.
Pete Grande, president of California-based plastic bag manufacturer Command Packaging, says the isolated negative attention on plastic bags is the result of environmentalists' need for a rallying point rather than the environmental ramifications resulting from the proliferation of plastic bags.
"If you're trying to collect money from people to fix something, you need an enemy. You need a symbol," he said. "The plastic bag has become the symbol. [Environmental activists] have gone to extreme measures to distort facts and create their symbol. It's a great fundraising tool for them."
Grande believes this method presents the plastic bag ban as a one-sided issue and inhibits valid criticisms of the ban that need to be addressed.
He added that plastic bag bans would gut the industry and instead help out Chinese businesses already making reusable bags. "Aren't we trying to go the other way, trying to encourage manufacturing in this country?" he said.