They go farther than other cities have gone.
At 2 a.m. [Friday], the Austin City Council passed one of the broadest bag laws in the nation, agreeing to ban disposable paper and plastic bags at all retail checkout counters starting in March 2013.
Before and after the ban takes effect, the city plans to do a $2 million education campaign to make customers aware of the change and remind them to bring reusable bags.
The council decided not to enact a fee on disposable bags before the ban takes effect. A fee had been discussed as a way to help shoppers and retailers prepare for the ban.
Austin is the first big Texas city to pass a bag ban. More than two dozen U.S. cities have bag laws, most of them prohibiting plastic bags and imposing a fee on paper.
In Austin, retailers will be able to offer only reusable bags, defined as those made of cloth, durable materials or thicker paper and plastic bags that have handles.
Exempt will be single-use bags used for bulk foods, meat, fish and produce, newspaper delivery, dry cleaning and restaurant carry-out foods. Also exempt will be the bags that charities and nonprofits use to distribute food and other items.
Here was a preview story from Monday. I’m not thrilled with the paper bag ban. Paper bags aren’t nearly the litter problem that plastic bags are, and besides, who doesn’t use paper bags to store their other paper for curbside recycling pickup? I’m all in for doing something about plastic bags, but I would have voted against a paper bag ban if I’d been on Austin City Council. And I must admit, the more I think about it, the more I find myself in agreement with the approach of taxing instead of banning the plastic bags.
A tax by itself will dramatically reduce the use of plastic bags, judging from the experience of other cities. A tax will also generate money we can use to clean up other litter — plastic bags aren’t the only things littering our creek beds and parks. The city could divert the $4 million it intends to spend on educating consumers about the ban to cleaning up litter. The City could put a lot of people to work and clean up a lot of litter with $4 million and the tax income stream. If you’re really interested in a cleaner city, a tax will get you that.
I don’t oppose plastic bag bans, especially in coastal cities, but the argument about using the revenue generated from a bag tax specifically for litter cleanup is compelling. When the city of Houston finally gets around to talking about this – we will talk about this sooner or later, right? – that’s the approach I’d like to see given priority.