Mar 01, 2013

Paper or Plastic? Not Anymore in Austin

Kellie Fineman, a University of Texas senior, carries her purchases in her hands after shopping at H-E-B in Austin. Photo by Hannah Jones. 

By Jonathan Damrich and Sheyna Webster
For Reporting Texas and The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN — This city’s get-tough conservation efforts gobbled up its last, thin plastic shopping bag — outlawed as Friday from grocery stores and elsewhere.

Checkout lanes inside stores across the capital had empty racks where plastic bags once hung.

At one Walmart, Karina Tribble and other customers left with groceries loose in their shopping carts.

“I just loaded up everything in the back, but I usually always keep bags with me,” she said. “I just forget them.”

The new ban requires retailers to use plastic bags thicker than 4 millimeters, paper bags made with 40 percent recycled content or reusable cloth bags.

Brownsville, South Padre and Fort Stockton have similar rules. Austin is now the largest Texas city to embrace a bag ban.

And Amanda Winters, after a trip to Walgreens, said she’s all for it.

“It is a good thing for the city — it reduces waste,” she said.

The Austin Resource Recovery Center estimates that it affects about 17,500 businesses, including convenience stores and liquor stores. Exemptions include plastic bags for produce, dry cleaning and some restaurant carry-outs.

“Austin is a really green city, and a lot of shoppers are already bringing their reusable bags,” said Courtney Black, spokeswoman for the city’s waste management service. “We realize this could be an adjustment for people who aren’t really in the habit, but we hope that it’s a pretty seamless transition.”

More than 12,000 employees had been retrained on bagging procedures at H-E-B grocery stores, said spokeswoman Leslie Sweet.

“We can only imagine we’ll probably see several hundred types of reusable bags that our team needs to know how to bag quickly to help get customers out the door,” she said, adding that H-E-B would give away 400,000 bags this weekend. The first bag was free for shoppers, who were charged 25 cents for subsequent bags. Walmart charged 10 cents for paper bags with handles and 50 cents for reusable bags.

The Austin City Council, which approved the ban last March, pushed the initiative after a study found residents used 263 million plastic bags a year, costing the city more than $850,000 annually in trash costs.

The Texas Retailers Association sued Monday, claiming a provision in the state health and safety code prevents cities from prohibiting certain types of packaging without state permission. But TRA President Ronnie Volkening said his group went to court to clarification, not to stop the ban from going into effect Friday.

“If the state law prevails and the ordinance fails, we need to get back with the city and work on what is the next best alternative,” he said.

Some shoppers at a Walmart in North Austin could have used a reminder to bring reusable bags.

“We have a lot at home, preparing for this, and today we forgot them,” Holli Taylor said. “A lot of people reuse plastic bags,” she added, not sold on the ban. “I use them for my bathroom trash can or doggie clean-up, little things like that around the house.”

But Lavell Thompson, another shopper, favors it as a way to cut down on debris. He recalled a driving along the beach in Corpus Christi.

“I was amazed by how much plastic was on the seashore,” he said.