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What Austin Businesses Are Doing With Their Leftover Plastic Bags

In less than two weeks, Austin’s new reusable bag ordinance goes into effect.

Most Austin businesses, whether big or small, have until now bought plastic bags in bulk to save money. Big department stores and retailers can go through thousands of bags in a matter of days. But for smaller stores it can take months to use up inventory. So what will those businesses do with all those bags?

If you take a walk down South Congress Avenue, you'll pass the storefronts of dozens of locally owned small businesses. Some sell items crafted in India and Africa. Others, like the Big Top Candy Shop, offer local, national and and international candy varieties. And most stores will be impacted by Austin’s bag ordinance.

When customers at the Big Top Candy Shop are done with their purchases, Andrew Burnett reaches down the counter to grab one of the hundreds of single-use paper bags he still has on hand. His current strategy is to go through as many leftover bags as possible before March 1. “Come have some candy and take a plastic bag while you still can,” Burnett says, “so you can hold all your candy.”

Months ago, business owners in the South Congress District (or SoCo as it’s called), got together to talk about designing a SoCo bag that complies with the new ordinance. That would help drive down costs and promote the shopping district. But business owners haven’t talked about what to do with the leftovers.

Rebecca Melaçon with the Austin Independent Business Alliance says she’s getting lots of phone calls from businesses asking precisely that: “’What do we do with the leftover bags?’ Of course, you don’t want to throw them away,” Melaçon says, “because that defeats the purpose of the ordinance altogether. But, it’s too many to just discard or ignore and [business owners] would like to recoup some of the cost.”

Through these chats, Melaçon got the idea to sell the bags cheap to businesses in places like Round Rock or Kyle or Cedar Park – places not impacted by Austin’s bag ordinance. The AIBA is helping do that through its website.

“We are not really going to be bag brokers,” Melaçon says. “It’s just looking at us as a dating service.  We are trying to get buyers for these [bags].”

If the bag swap is a success, it could be a win-win. Local business wouldn’t lose as much money on the old bags, area business could get a deal – and the city would potentially keeps hundred of pounds of plastic out of the landfill.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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