*This post has been updated since Wednesday.
Two years after the city of Austin banned single-use plastic bags, a new report estimates Austinites have used nearly 200 million fewer plastic bags annually — a 75 percent reduction.
That report was presented Wednesday evening to Austin’s Zero Waste Advisory Commission.
While the estimated reduction in plastic bag use has gotten a lot of attention, another finding of the report has received much less: Single-use bags have been replaced in Austin recycling streams by another type of bag — the reusable plastic bag.
"The results do not indicate a clear success"
The report found that, compared to recycling streams of nearby municipalities, the overall number of plastic bags is lower in Austin's recycling streams. Environmental advocates say that's a success.
"This is something we should proud of and other cities should emulate," says Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment.
But according to an audit of Austin’s two recycling centers, more than 60 percent of all plastic bags found in both recycling centers were reusable plastic bags. Most of those reusable bags came from H-E-B, the only grocery store that distributes 4 mil. reusable bags in the city.
"Indeed, the amount of single-use plastic bags has been reduced, both in count and by weight," wrote the author of the study, Aaron Waters. "However, in their place, the larger 4 mil. bags have replaced them as the go-to standard when the reusable bag is left at home."
Waters says those reusable plastic bags, if not used to their maximum capability, can actually be more difficult to recycle and have a larger carbon footprint.
“While most citizens find the bag ordinance to be beneficial to the environment, at least in terms of the reduction of litter, the results do not indicate a clear success."
The 4 mil. reusable plastic bag can be used more than 100 times. If used that often, those bags would have less of an environmental impact than a single-use bag. But the large number of those bags in Austin recycling centers suggests shoppers are not reusing them that often, if at all.
Plus, Waters says those bags also use virgin plastic, meaning it's never been used before, instead of recycled plastic. They must be used at least four times to offset the carbon footprint to create them.
In his report, Waters recommends banning those reusable plastic bags, too, or at least educating consumers how to properly reuse or recycle them. At last night's meeting, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert agreed with all the recommendations except the one to also eliminate 4 mil. bags.
The report also suggests that the best way to dispose of the glossy reusable plastic bags is take them back to stores. Some large retailers place a box near the entrance where shoppers can bring old plastic bags. But the report also found that one unintended consequence of the ban is that many pharmacies in Austin have stopped offering that service since the bag ban was enacted.
Calculating the bag ban effect
To get numbers on the plastic bag ban’s effect, Waters compared the amount of single-use bags collected during one volunteer cleanup in Austin and one volunteer cleanup in Fort Worth (a city with a similar sized population but no bag ban).
Using that data, Waters calculated each city’s litter rate for single-use plastic bags (.03 percent in Austin and .12 percent in Fort Worth). Using those numbers, he concluded that the number of single-use bags used in Austin had been reduced by 75 percent.
But not everyone is convinced comparing these isolated cleanups in two cities is a reliable way to determine whether the number of single-use plastic bags was actually reduced.
“The comparison of two studies from two different cities without a lot of controls leaves a lot of opportunities for variances, which would call into question the accuracy of [the] comparison and saying that, in fact, there’s been this 75 percent reduction in bags in the litter stream,” says Ronnie Volkening, President and CEO of the Texas Retailers Association.
However, little to no data exists that studies the historical use of single-use plastic bags.
Reducing urban blight
Beyond environmental effects, plastic bag ban supporters say the ban reduces urban blight. Fort Stockton, Texas banned plastic single-use bags nearly four years ago. One reason was because they felt the roadside litter negatively affected the number of visitors willing to stop there while traveling through.
This week’s report on Austin’s plastic bag ban found residents and employees in the city have noticed a difference in the number of bags caught in fences and trees.
“You see plastic bags in the wild, and you want to get rid of them because they’re a blight," says Waters. "And they do contribute to urban blight as well, and so that’s a consideration.”
Waters says studies show litter indirectly contributes to reduced property values in neighborhoods with lots of visible litter — a 7.4 percent drop.
Andrew Dobbs with the Texas Campaign from the Environment says the ban is addressing that issue.
"Property owners in Austin, especially in some of our lower income neighborhoods, are seeing greater returns on investment and less of an impact on their wealth," Dobbs says. "This is something to be proud of."
Ronnie Volkening with the Texas Retailer Association is against the bag ban, but agrees.
"One of the contributing factors to making this an issue is the fact that plastic bags are highly visible," he says.
Waters, an environmental studies graduate student at St. Edwards, believes it’s good the bag ban is in place. But, "overall, from what I found...they're not very impactful from an overall standpoint. There's much bigger issues to tackle from an environmental standpoint rather than spending so much effort on the plastic bag ban."