Plastic Bag Ban

Confused about Austin’s coming bag ban? You’re not alone.

Austin Resource Recovery, tasked with reaching the city’s zero waste by 2040, is hosting carryout bag training sessions for local businesses at the Austin City Hall this morning.

The training is designed prepare businesses for the plastic bag ban that takes effect in March 2013.

Originally, the ban barred the use of most single use paper and plastic bags, but late last week the City Council approved adding some exemptions. Now, restaurants will largely be exempt.


Austin’s commitment to becoming a “zero waste” city by 2040 came into question today, as the City Council approved adding exemptions to the plastic bag ban that takes effect in March 2013.

Restaurants will now be exempt from the bag ban. Some citizens expressed that the exemption deviates from the goals of the original ban and provides too big of a loophole. (Whole Foods, Central Market and Wheatsville Co-op all serve hot dishes, for example.) 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell disagrees. "This is addressing in a meaningful way something that's a real problem," Leffingwell said, "and we've done that for other uses of plastic bags where we've seen that there's not a reasonable alternative – newspapers, dry cleaning for example. I think it's pretty obvious once you think about it – obviously we didn't think about it [then], but once you do think about carrying out a bag full of barbeque sauce in a paper bag, it's not a good idea."

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

Austin City Council voted at 2 o’clock this morning to ban plastic and paper shopping bags starting March 2013. 

City council was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposal at 4 p.m. Thursday, but with a busy agenda, council didn’t get to the bag ban hearing until midnight.

Most speakers who stayed until midnight supported the bag ban, but some urged council not to vote at such a late hour.

“I think it’s really hard to make a decision at 12:41 a.m. and I’m going to tell you, I’m not in my best speaking self,” Jenn Studebaker told council. “Many of the people that came with me are not here. I think there’s a problem with that. You called a public hearing at midnight.”

Callie Hernandez/KUT News

We’re not sure what’s up with today’s Austin City Council meeting, filled with action on several long-simmering items. The council holds another meeting next week before heading into spring break, so it’s not like council has to cram everything into this meeting. But they pretty much did. Here's a rundown:

… And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Lights: Item 15 on the agenda inks an agreement with the RunTex Foundation to sponsor the Trail of Lights, that holiday event at Zilker Park that went dark due to budget cuts. As we wrote earlier this week, many see the proposal as a win-win, while others decry the privatization of a publicly-run event.

Taxi Drivers: Items 30 and 31 award new permits to Austin taxi franchises: 30 more for Lone Star Cab, and 15 more for Austin Cab. The item is up on second reading, meaning should it be successful today, a third and final vote is still required. And the meter’s still running: If and when these 45 are awarded, council is expected to offer an additional 35 new permits this summer.

Photo by KUT News

The hotly debated question of whether to ban disposable bags comes to the Austin City Council tomorrow.

The council is posted to hear comments and take action on the proposal in a public hearing tomorrow evening. But considering the proposal has been fluttered around more wildly than a Wal-Mart bag in a strong breeze, it’s worth contemplating three aspects of the ban that have remained most controversial.

Here’s a brief primer, from KUT News:

Paper or Plastic? Or Both?: Although the proposal started out as a ban on single-use plastic bags, the ordinance has since expanded to include paper bags as well. This hasn’t escaped the attention of Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who questioned Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) director Bob Gedert at a previous meeting as to how the ban was broadened.

Photo courtesy

In its short history, Austin’s proposed disposable bag ban has already seen its share of controversy:  A series of stops and starts, recent revisions, and more.   

But Austin’s far from the only city considering such a measure. In fact, the Texas town of Corpus Christi is also considering a similar proposal.

Photo courtesy

Austin Resource Recovery (ARR) presented their newest draft of a disposable bag ban to the City Council today.

So what’s changed since the proposal was last floated?

ARR director Bob Gedert initially discussed a temporary surcharge  – either 10 cents a bag, or a dollar per transaction – to fund the initial, educational phase of the ordinance. 

But Gedert raised the surcharge proposal only to take it off the table moments later. Citing implementation challenges, he ultimately recommended against the measure, a move Mayor Lee Leffingwell supported. Leffingwell said no fees in the interim period would provide a “safe harbor” for customers, and ensure “people are not left trying to carry 20 cans of peas out in their arms.”

Photo by KUT News

The Austin City Council convenes again today, considering a heady, 61-item agenda. If this weekly preview is beginning to sound like a broken record, that’s because council keeps slogging through several controversial topics: Austin Energy’s embattled rate increases, contentious cab issues and the disposable bag ban. Luckily, debate over extending Capital Metro’s rail service will keep things fresh.

Electric Rate Redux: A public hearing on Austin Energy’s recently tweaked proposals raising electricity rates is scheduled for 6 p.m. The changes haven’t received much acceptance from opponents of the original proposal. Joining the ranks of council members floating changes to the rate proposals are Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo, who prior to the meeting’s 10 a.m. start will “announce a proposed alternative to Austin Energy’s recommended rate increase.”

Photo by KUT News

School Board to Withdraw Financial Exigency

The Austin ISD board is expected to withdraw the district's declaration of financial exigency at a board meeting tonight. AISD declared itself to be in a state of fiscal emergency last February, which allowed the district to cut more than 1,000 positions. The district says they now have enough money in reserve to cover an anticipated deficit year. 

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Austin’s proposed bag ban isn’t a part of today’s City Council meeting. But the city is gearing up for a forum on the controversial (and somewhat convoluted) proposal. The contrarian economists at Freakonomics are even weighing in on the proposal.

The team at Freakonomics focus on one argument against the ban coming from liquor sellers. (“Package stores” were excluded from the initial draft of the ban, but were included in a subsequent revision.)

On the Freakonomics blog, UT professor Daniel Hamermesh writes:

One particularly clever argument by liquor retailers is that it will encourage people to buy less — not a good thing, so they argue, when unemployment is high. 

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

Governor Rick Perry Drops out of GOP race

Texas Governor Rick Perry is dropping out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination, sources are telling the New York Times and CNN.

Perry has a news conference scheduled for 10 o’clock this morning in South Carolina, where he’s expected to make a formal announcement.

The Associated Press reports he will endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Photo courtesy, Ramin Bahrani

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.

Photo by KUT News.

City Commission to Review Proposed Bags Ban

The City of Austin’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission is scheduled to take up a proposed plastic bags ban tonight. The draft ban would ban single-use plastic and paper bags starting in January 2013. And from this June to December businesses would have to charge ten cents a bag.

Tonight’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission meeting starts at six thirty at City Hall. The Austin City Council would still have to vote on the ban before it could take effect.

Recovery Work Resuming in Bastrop

Recovery work will resume in wildfire-damaged Bastrop County. Federal officials yesterday cleared Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative to get back to work clearing trees, picking up debris and putting up electric lines and meters in burned areas.

Does Austin support or oppose a plastic bag ban or would it prefer some kind of alternative? You decide! Two groups have somewhat conflicting polls on the issue, so you can pick whichever one supports your argument, Choose Your Own Adventure-style.

Photo by KUT News.

Bastrop County: On the Road Back

Bastrop County is holding its second open house to talk about wildfire recovery. Everyone affected by the Labor Day wildfires is invited to the come-and-go event. Local, state and federal officials will be on hand to answer questions about debris removal, utilities, FEMA aid and more. Bastrop County officials say more than 250 families attended the first open house. Tonight’s meeting is from 6-8 p.m. at the Smithville Recreation Center.

AISD Board Discussing Facilities Plan Tonight

The Austin Independent School District’s board has a full agenda tonight. The board will hear some possible scenarios about how facilities could be used during the 2012-2013 school year.

Photo by adav

The plastic grocery bag has few friends at Austin’s City Hall. Council voted in July to move forward with a plan that would ban single-use plastic bags at local stores, putting Austin in the company of cities like San Francisco, Portland, San Jose, Washington, DC and even Brownsville, Texas.

But the specifics of the plan are still being ironed out. Next Monday, city officials hope to hear from you on how it should be done. They’re holding a public input session from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Austin Energy building.

KUT’s Matt Largey talked about it with Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Callie Hernandez/KUT News

A plastic grocery bag ban proposed by elected city leaders last month could 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.

Photo by KUT News

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley  announced a proposal this morning to phase out free plastic bags at retail stores.

They criticized plastic bags for littering rivers and streams, harming wildlife and too often ending up in landfills.  Consumers who reuse the bags to carry their lunches to picking up after their pets disagree.  At a news conference this morning, Mayor Leffingwell acknowledged it’s going to take some convincing to get people to change their habits.

Photo courtesy Reagan County Sherriff's Department

Warren Jeffs Trial seeking Jurors

Jury selection starts in San Angelo today in the sexual assault trial of polygamist religious leader Warren Jeffs. Jury selection in the high profile case is expected to be difficult, since few people in the town are unfamiliar with the case. If convicted, Jeffs faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for sexual assault of one child and aggravated sexual assault of another. He will face bigamy charges in a separate case in October.

Leffingwell to Announce Possible Ban on Plastic Bags

It's not everyday you see environmentalists protesting a bill that would require grocery stores to recycle plastic bags.

Photo by KUT News

A bill up for consideration in the Texas Legislature this session would mandate some retail outlets across the state to establish recycling programs for the plastic bags they hand out to customers.

Senate Bill 908, authored by Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), would require larger retail stores to offer bag recycling. It would not apply to Mom and Pop operations, but is aimed at stores like Wal-Mart and H-E-B.

Plastic bags
Image by KUT News

Austin city leaders have been talking about banning plastic bags at stores for a while, but signs for such an ordinance look strong this year. 

“We have a report that we’ve been working on, on the cost impact of plastic bags. That study has been presented to City Hall, we hope to have that in the hands of city council within a couple of weeks,” said Bob Gedert, the City of Austin’s Solid Waste Services director.

That report has not been released to the public yet.