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Blowing in the Wind: A Plastic Bag Ban Timeline

Austin's plans to ban single-use bags have been revised several times.
Photo courtesy, Ramin Bahrani
Austin's plans to ban single-use bags have been revised several times.

Plans to phase out single-use plastic bags at Austin retailers are still up in the air.

Austin Resource Recovery, the department tasked with drafting an ordinance banning the bags, has drafted and scrapped two separate ordinances in as many months. But with a lull before the department rolls out their third (and presumably final) draft, now is as good a time as any to pin down their previous proposals.

Believe it or not, this conversation was actually initiated back in 2007, when the Austin City Council first adopted a resolution against single-use bags.

Things lay dormant until the beginning of 2011. That January the city unveiled their Plastic Bag Cost Findings and Clarifications Report. It stated “Staff estimates that the current cost to manage plastic bags in Austin is approximately $850,000 per year. However, this cost is underestimated since unmitigated environmental impacts cannot be quantified.”

In August 2011, council passed a resolution calling for a “comprehensive phase-out of single-use plastic bags offered at retail checkouts,” with the implementation to be settled later.

Public workshops were held in the fall of 2011, before the first draft of the bag ban was released in December. This version of the ban contained several exemptions, including bags for prescriptions, alcohol, laundry and dry cleaning, restaurant food, and more. Taking effect the beginning of 2013, it would allow retailers to charge customers 25 cents for each single-use bag until 2016, at which time they would be completely outlawed.

A revised draft was then released January 3 of this year. This version held even fewer exceptions, applying only to laundry and dry cleaning bags, door-hangar bags, newspaper bags, and bags inside grocery stores and bakeries for fresh, unwrapped foods and flowers. It would have taken effect even sooner, in March of this year, with a ten cent surcharge for bags during a grace period that only extended to the end of 2012.

But as Austin Resource Recovery director Bob Gedert recently made clear, those proposals will be tweaked again. In a January 11 presentation to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission, Gedert floated several changes to the draft.

The biggest changes may involve the implementation timeline: Gedert floated the idea of adding another year to the time retailers have to make the change (from March 2012 to March 2013), and extending the grace period during which single-use bags would be available (from March 2013 to March 2014). He also discussed changing the charge on bags available during the grace period to a flat $1 fee, reinstating the exemption for pharmacies and restaurants, and additional smaller changes.

So what’s next? On January 30, the city will host a “Plastic Bag Deliberative Forum,” where residents and businesses can offer their input. On February 8, a public hearing is scheduled to occur at the Solid Waste Advisory Commission meeting. And City Council discussion and possible action is tentatively scheduled for March 1 – although we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a few more changes along the way.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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