Businesses may seek temporary exemption from plastic bag ban

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The Austin City Council unanimously approved amendments to a city ordinance passed earlier this year banning businesses’ use of plastic bags at the council’s regular meeting Thursday. In March the council approved an ordinance prohibiting businesses from providing nonreusable plastic and paper bags to customers effective March 1, 2013.

The amendments approved Thursday provide guidelines for the implementation of the city’s ban, including a three-year period for businesses to apply for exemption if they demonstrate that they cannot immediately meet the standards set by the ordinance.

Businesses may also seek exemption if they wish to use bags composed of an alternative material not mentioned in the ordinance but still meet the city’s standards of reusability.

Bob Gedert, director of the Austin Resource Recovery Department, the city’s solid waste management department, said the department will determine exemptions on a case-by-case basis. He said businesses granted temporary exemption from the ordinance must renew their exemption on an annual basis within the three-year period, although he does not think the department will grant many renewals.

“We don’t expect to grant many exemptions,” Gedert said.

He said businesses must apply for exemption by Jan. 1, 2013. If a business is granted annual exemption from the ordinance during the three-year period, they must adopt the standards set by the ordinance once the period expires.

Gedert said implementing the ordinance will cost the city about $850,000 between December 2012 and December 2013.

Brad Parsons, a local environmental activist, said he believes the guidelines dilute the intent of the ordinance, which is to abolish the use of unrecyclable bags, by allowing the continued usage of plastic bags.

Parsons said he does not support the three-year period during which businesses can apply for exemption. He said he would prefer giving businesses one year to seek exemption from the ordinance.

“What’s the point of having this ban if you do not apply pressure for businesses and citizens to follow the ban?” Parsons said.

Effective March 1, 2013, businesses must instead provide customers with reusable carryout bags. Article 7 of the city code defines a reusable carryout bag as a bag constructed of cloth or another washable fabric, recyclable plastic with a minimum thickness of four millimeters or recyclable paper.

Paper bags must contain 40 percent recycled content beginning March 1, 2013, and contain a minimum of 80 percent recycled content by March 1, 2015.

The ordinance does not apply to laundry, newspaper and waste bags; bags provided by pharmacies and veterinarians that contain prescription drugs and other medical necessities; bags provided by restaurants to carry prepared food; bags used by nonprofit organizations to distribute food, groceries and clothing, among other items; and noncheckout bags that carry produce, nuts and other food products.

If businesses fail to follow the ordinance, they will be subject to a fine between $100 and $2,000.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: Businesses may seek bag ban exemption