Austin Weighs Plastic Bag Ban, Sparks Debate

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.

Plastic Bag Industry a Scapegoat?

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.

But if the intent of these bans and taxes is to encourage the use of trendy reusable bags, the results might not be as effective as people think. In 2008, Whole Foods — which is headquartered in Austin — imposed an outright ban of plastic bags in their stores nationwide. Without the plastic option, 85 percent of their consumers now use paper bags as opposed to reusable bags.

"The brand new generation born in the 80s has never considered using their own bags," Guidry said. "It's got to be a change of culture, change of habit, change of mentality."

The reusable bags seem like the perfect solution to this ecological conundrum, but a recent study from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University demonstrate they can be breeding grounds for E. Coli and other dangerous bacteria. The researchers found roughly 50 percent of inspected reusable bags contained potentially lethal forms of bacteria.

"People put their chicken and their hamburgers in [the reusable bags] and that blood gets on the side of the bag," Grande said. "Then the next time they go to the store they'll use that same bag for their apples. Bacteria on reusable bags can create a health hazard."

This danger is something Austin definitely plans to address, said officials, but they aren't sure how. "If the city ends up doing this we'd have to engage in some sort of pretty intense education program," Everhart said. "We'd tell people, 'If you use reusable bags, make sure to wash them every once in a while.'"

And while environmentalists emphasize ecological benefits of reusable bags, the drawbacks are exactly what the plastic industry wants the public to remember.

"There are definitely drawbacks to every option," said Everhart. "That's why we have to weigh all of the cost options." contributor Miriam Smith is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Austin, Texas.