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Austin Could Require Grocers To Charge for Plastic and Paper Bags

City council members discussed the proposal during a work session today at Austin City Hall.
Callie Hernandez/KUT News
City council members discussed the proposal during a work session today at Austin City Hall.

A plastic grocery bag banproposed by elected city leaders last monthcould be changed to require a surcharge for both paper and plastic bags, such as five or ten cents. 

During a work session today, several city council members expressed concern that banning only plastic bags might not necessarily be any better for the environment.

“If we ban plastic, we force paper,” Council Member Mike Martinez said.

“But if there is an option for you, and that option is a potential surcharge if you don’t have your bags, that could more comprehensively achieve our policy goals,” he said.

The paper and plastic industries have long debated the meritsof their competing bags. The essential argument is that paper bags require more natural resources to produce, while plastic bags are harder to recycle.

The new attitude among Austin City Council members may have something to do with lobbying yesterday by Texas Campaign for the Environment.

“I think they were here all day talking to everyone’s office,” Council member Laura Morrison said. “They were advocating for a ban on any single-use bag.”

“The points they made, that [paper bags] are as harmful or more harmful to the environment […] I think those are all very important questions to answer,” she said.

Mayor Leffingwell seemed open to the idea.

“I agree with all of that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that [Texas Campaign for the Environment] will be at the table.”

“At the same time, there will be others at the table who might have some problem with any particular [policy],” Leffingwell said.

The Mayor says there are 263 million plastic bags used in Austin every year. The estimated cost to the city is $850,000 in litter cleanup, and landfill and recycling management..

Because of the cost, Council Member Bill Spelman floated an idea during the meeting of a one-cent City of Austin surcharge per bag. The money would mitigate recycling and litter cleanup costs.

“We would only charge whatever amount we would need to clean up the after effects of having the bags in circulation and on our streets and so on,” Spelman said.

But City Attorney Leela Fireside told Spelman that might not be legal. She said fees are supposed to reimburse the city for running a program or providing a service.

“That sounds like a tax, and I don’t know we’re authorized to just unilaterally charge a tax of that nature,” Fireside said. She said city legal staff would look into it and report back to council.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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