Paper or canvas?

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City Hall

Plastic may no longer be an option. Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, along with City Council members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez, introduced a resolution Monday that would eventually lead to a ban on plastic shopping bags in most Austin stores. In doing so, Austin would join a growing number of environmentally-conscious cities and countries that have chosen to banish the wasteful plastic scourge.

This is not the first time Leffingwell has supported banning plastic bags. In 2008, when he served as a member of City Council, Leffingwell proposed banning plastic shopping bags. His efforts did not lead to a ban then, however. A group of six large retail stores pledged to voluntarily reduce bag use at their stores instead.

The reduction amounted to about a 20-percent decline in use over the past two years, according to Leffingwell. The agreed target was 50 percent. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the mayor cited the program’s general ineffectiveness and its small size (it involved only the original six retailers who proposed it) as reasons for revisiting the idea of a city-wide ban.

The mayor also cited a January 2011 report from the city’s Solid Waste Services Department, which estimated that Austin’s plastic bag habit — some 263 million bags used annually — costs the city more than $850,000 per year in landfill maintenance and roadside cleanup.

The city council will consider the new resolution at its Aug. 4 meeting. If adopted, the resolution would direct city employees, along with local retailers, to create an implementation plan. The mayor has said that a ban would be imposed gradually and would likely allow for some exceptions to be made. Small stores, for instance, might be exempt. However, he was careful to say that the ban must be widely applicable to be effective.

A number of U.S. cities have banned the plastic bag in stores. In 2007, San Francisco was the first to do so. Portland is the most recent member of the club, which has grown to include Brownsville, Palo Alto and Los Angeles County.

Internationally, banning them is more popular. Mexico City banned plastic bags in 2009; the Chinese government has severely restricted their use; and Italy banished them entirely in January.

Plastic bags can persist in the environment for decades. They do not degrade readily; they merely break into smaller pieces. They pile up in mountains and in landfills, pollute rivers, swirl endlessly in oceans and endanger wildlife. But while managing plastic bags after they have been used and discarded certainly creates environmental problems, it is by some accounts a smaller problem than the consequences of making the bags initially.

Plastic bags are made from oil and natural gas, and the environmental cost of producing them is severe. They waste non-renewable resources that could be used for more productive purposes. The Chinese government estimates that its restrictions save some 37 million barrels of oil per year from being used to make plastic bags.

According to Salon, an online magazine, only 2 percent of plastic bags are successfully recycled in the United States. Many are thrown away and sent to landfills, but even bags sent to recycling centers pose problems. Because they are so thin, the bags are difficult to process and often clog machines, requiring them to be removed by hand.

Businesses favor them, of course, because they are cheap, costing 1 to 2 cents per bag, compared to paper bags’ 4- to 6-cent price tag. And manufacturers claim that making them is less damaging than making paper bags. Paper bags require that trees be ground up, and because they are heavier than plastic ones, paper bags require more fuel to transport to retailers.

But that argument fails to account for the higher recycling rate for paper bags, many of which are now made from recycled materials to begin with. Moreover, trees, if properly managed, are a renewable resource, unlike oil and natural gas.

And paper bags are not the only alternative. During the voluntary reduction program, the Texas Retailers Association, a group that opposes the mayor’s proposed ban, estimates that the participating stores sold more than 900,000 reusable canvas bags to customers.

These bags, also often made from recycled materials, can be used over and over again. Getting customers to use them has been the primary issue. Eliminating plastic bags, or charging for them, may be an incentive customers will respond to.

Plastic bags serve their purpose quite well, and they epitomize convenience. But the piles of discarded bags and small bits of plastic floating in our rivers and oceans are slowly assembling into a permanent monument to the consequences of our collective laziness.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, Leffingwell said, “It won’t take much for Austinites to understand that plastic is no longer an option.” He is right, and Austin should kick this wasteful habit.


Daley is a biology and government senior.