Cofer: One year later, Austin bag ban is working
Posted: 12:00 a.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014
By Rick Cofer - Special to the American-Statesman
Paper or plastic?”
It’s a question you used to hear almost every time you went to the grocery store. But a little over one year ago, the city of Austin eliminated the need for that query by prohibiting the distribution of single-use checkout bags by retailers and merchants. Consistent with our long tradition of environmental leadership, Austin was the first large city in America to ban both paper and plastic single-use checkout bags.
Before the bag ban, the Austin area was consuming more than 200 million plastic bags annually. That meant more greenhouse gases, more petroleum usage, more litter and more pollution. Austin took the bold step of banning paper and plastic single-use bags because we knew there was a better way.
Cities and countries everywhere have used a variety of measures, including bans, taxes and more, to reduce disposable bag use and its harmful consequences. Ireland levied a tax on bags. China banned plastic bags nationwide. San Francisco was the first North American city to ban plastic bags after a campaign to promote voluntary recycling yielded poor results. In those cases, disposable bag use has been virtually eliminated as consumers choose compostable bags, recycled content-paper bags or reusable bags.
Instead of merely imposing some other city’s ordinance on Austin, city officials took nearly five years to craft a law that took the best elements from other cities and created a phased-in, common-sense approach that has succeeded in dramatically reducing the presence and waste of single-use bags. As the City of Austin Resource Recovery Department (formerly Solid Waste Services) quantifies the exact reduction in bag waste, preliminary anecdotal evidence indicates a more than 90 percent reduction in single-use bag waste.
If single-use plastic and paper bags were an indispensable part of daily life, a ban would have been out of the question. Single-use bags, however, were essentially a luxury. Many alternatives are available to transport groceries and other retail purchases. We can use tote bags, compostable bags, reusable bags, or simply carry our purchases. Each of these choices has significantly less impact on our environment.
And, indeed, one year since the ban on single-use bags, we see that life goes on in Austin. Shoppers did not flee the city limits and business did not grind to a halt. The doom and gloom that some prognosticated never came to pass. As would be expected, Austinites embraced the new culture and discovered that bringing your own bags to the store wasn’t quite so difficult after all.
This ban represents a fundamental alteration to our previous culture of consumption, and we should be proud of what we’ve achieved together. Tens of millions of bags have been kept out of landfills and our creeks, streams and rivers. We have been able to demonstrate our commitment to a clean and green future through a simple daily action that has real life benefits for us and our world.
As Austinites, we have a moral obligation to set an example and serve as leaders in environmental protection. Plastic bags are not the greatest threat to our air and water quality. They are a small but meaningful part of the larger problems we face in protecting our environment and addressing global climate change. But it is our sacred duty to leave our world a little bit better than we found it. Through a ban, we have reduced our oil consumption, our carbon footprint, and our contribution to landfills. We have beautified our city and made a strong stand as national leaders in the effort to protect our natural resources.
Cofer is the founder of the Bag the Bags Coalition and chair of the City of Austin Zero Waste Advisory Commission.
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