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South Padre Island

Austin may accelerate its bag ban schedule

They’re considering their options.

The City of Austin might ban the thin plastic and paper bags offered at checkout counters beginning in March 2013 a year earlier than expected and scrap plans to require retailers to charge a fee for such bags in the meantime.

Austin Resource Recovery , the city’s trash and recycling department, has written several drafts of the ban, most recently proposing that retailers charge a fee of 10 cents per single-use bag or $1 per transaction starting in March 2013 before the ban took effect in March 2014 .

But on Thursday, Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert told the City Council that he now thinks skipping the interim fee and enacting the ban sooner would simplify things and prevent disputes between customers and cashiers over how many free, disposable bags the customer needs.

The council is slated to hold a public hearing and vote on the ban March 1. After hearing Gedert’s presentation Thursday, a few council members questioned whether the ban should apply to paper bags as well as plastic.

Under the proposed ban, retailers could offer only reusable bags, defined as those made of cloth or durable materials, or thicker paper and plastic bags that have handles.

The city of Pecos recently gave preliminary approval to a ban of its own, while the city of Midland will discuss the idea in March. Other cities – Brownsville, South Padre Island, Fort Stockton – have adopted similar bans, with varying approaches that include charging fees for single use bags, requring plastic bags to be compostable, and so forth. I don’t know that there’s a single right answer, and it may well be that some combination of requirements will work best. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, so hopefully we’ll learn more. And hopefully the city of Houston will eventually get on this bandwagon. There’s a lot of good we could do by pursuing this.

Austin to propose ban on plastic bags

Good for them.

The City Council will vote Aug. 4 on a resolution from [Mayor Lee] Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez and Chris Riley that would direct staff members to propose a scope for the ban and a timetable for phasing it in. Staff members would have to present a plan to the council in November.

City staffers will work with retailers and other stakeholders to write that plan, the mayor said.

Details such as whether small retailers should be exempt, what penalties retailers could face for not complying and when the ban should take effect will be worked out over the next four months, he said.

“I’m sure many retailers have a lot of plastic bags on hand or (long-term) contracts with bag companies. We want to take those things into consideration,” Leffingwell said. “Our goal will be to develop a reasonable ordinance that doesn’t cause hardship. It would be a hardship to enact a ban immediately.”

Leffingwell said he thinks paper bags should still be an option at checkout counters because they’re included in Austin’s curbside collection program for recyclables and they don’t gum up recycling machinery as plastic bags do.

But he said retailers may want or need to charge a fee of a few cents per paper bag to compel customers to get in the habit of bringing canvas or reusable bags.

The mayor said he would prefer that compostable plastic bags not be allowed because they can be tough to distinguish from other plastic bags, which might make a ban difficult to enforce.

Leffingwell said he expects there will be exceptions to the ban, such as allowing grocery stores to put fish and meat products in plastic bags at checkout counters.

Only a handful of other U.S. cities have enacted bans on plastic bags, including Brownsville, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., which passed a ban last week.

Besides Brownsville, South Padre Island has banned plastic bags, while Fort Stockton has a ban that will take effect in September. The Lege had a couple of bills proposed that would have preempted these local ordinances, but neither got a vote in either chamber. Austin had tried to ban plastic bags in 2008 but settled instead for a voluntary program that aimed at reducing their usage by 50%; Leffingwell says that only a 20% reduction was achieved. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. I hope it succeeds and becomes a model for other Texas cities to follow. More from Mayor Leffingwell is on BOR.

Can we take a step forward without also taking one back?

From last week’s Texas Tribune on the subject of plastic bag recycling.

On Tuesday the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources heard testimony on a bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, that would require large retailers like Wal-Mart to have well-labeled bag recycling canisters in their stores. This afternoon the House’s Environmental Regulations committee heard testimony on a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Hancock, R-Fort Worth.

“It encourages more eco-friendly behaviors,” said Hancock, who said that plastic bags cannot be recycled at curbside. It was a “free market-based solution,” he emphasized, that would result in more bags being recycled and made into items like benches or flower pots.

Environmental groups, however, oppose the bills because a clause at the end of both would “preempt” local rules that are in conflict with the bill. They fear this would prevent cities from banning the bags outright. Already, Brownsville has instituted a plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, and two other locations — Fort Stockton and South Padre Island — have approved bag bans that will come into effect in the coming months.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of local communities trying to reduce solid waste,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, in an email. Metzger did not testify but opposes the bill.

Fraser said that the bill aimed to bring a “transition” period for plastic bags. “We’ve got plastic bags in the system and we’re moving toward trying to eliminate them,” he said.

But Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, noted that there was “nothing in this bill that eliminates plastic bags in the waste stream,” and he feared that cities wanting to ban bags would be preempted from doing so under the bill’s language. Fraser said the three cities with bag bans would not be preempted, but it appeared that other cities that moved to ban bags in the future would be preempted.

Large retail groups like Wal-Mart and the Texas Restaurant Association back the bill, and several bag manufacturers also testified in favor.

I’ve noted the Brownsville and South Padre bag-banning efforts; Fort Stockton was news to me. Fraser’s bill is SB908; it was approved by the committee and is on the intent calendar for tomorrow. Hancock’s bill is HB1913; it’s still in committee. While there are times when it makes sense for the state to establish a single standard for something and in doing so override what cities have done, this isn’t one of those times. I’m confident that this provision is in there to get support from those large business interests. I’d prefer the Lege take no action at this time than take a step to prevent other cities from following Brownsville or South Padre or Fort Stockton’s example. Let’s let there be some experimentation to see what works best, and let’s leave some flexibility in place for the future rather than impose a one-size-fits-all solution. We should have bag recycling dropoffs at these locations, but we should be allowed to have more than that if we want it as well.

South Padre Island joins the bag banning brigade

That didn’t take long.

Buoyed by a weeks-old law in nearby Brownsville, South Padre Island leaders Wednesday made the vacation hot spot the next Texas town to restrict the use of single-use plastic bags.

The unanimously approved prohibition against using plastic bags at points of sale becomes mandatory Jan. 1, 2012. Between Feb. 1 and then, merchants are asked to comply with a voluntary ban.

The measure was championed by a group of surfer-activists, said Alita Bagley, the city councilwoman who introduced it early last year.

“Living on an island with the Laguna Madre bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other side — we’re a very sensitive environment,” Bagley said. “This really seemed like sort of a natural step. The statistics are out there (on) what problems the amount of plastic causes, particularly in the marine environment.”

“Surfer-activists”. Who knew we had such things in Texas? Unlike the Brownsville ordinance, this one allows for compostable plastic bags, which if nothing else should make life a little easier for folks who use their grocery bags to clean up after their dogs. Kudos to South Padre for taking this step. We’ll see who follows next.

Two Trib primary stories

The Trib has done a series of good, informative stories on primary battles across the state, which I recommend you read. Two of their most recent are especially worthwhile:

First is HD43, in which freshman Dem Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra is being challenged by JM Lozano.

Lozano’s strategy is to label Rios Ybarra a “red Texan.” Her campaign contributions from Houston homebuilder Bob Perry ($10,000 from Jan. 22 through Feb. 20) and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC (about $145,000 in-kind during the same time frame), both well-known backers of Republicans, are all the evidence he needs. His vision is of a blue Texas, he says, and that means weeding out what she represents. “The first thing we have to do is get rid of all the closet Republicans from the Democratic Party. My opponent is one of them,” he says. “You cannot have a strong Democratic Party if you have people that are beholden to the other party because you take 90 percent of your funding from them.”

Rios Ybarra defends her “moderate” approach and her bipartisan tendencies, and the support she says comes with them, because of the economic hardship in District 43, which is one of the poorest in the state. It covers six counties — Jim Hogg, Brooks, Willacy, Kenedy, Kleberg and northern Cameron — and about a third of the families with children live in poverty. Nearly 40 percent of residents have less than a high school education. “I believe, in this country, that it isn’t about handouts,” she says. “I believe ultimately it’s about creating opportunity, and that is done when we have a strong small-business sector. If that resonates across the aisle, that resonates across the aisle.”

But Lozano’s accusations carry weight with at least one party mainstay. In a rare endorsement before a contested primary, the Jim Hogg County Democratic Party is backing Lozano. “A Democrat primarily financed by Republicans is no Democrat at all,” its chair, Juan Carlos Guerra, said in a Feb. 19 statement. Guerra claimed Rios Ybarra “hijacked” the term “Democrat” to claim victory in 2008 in this Democratic-majority district. “We will not sit back as a Democratic Party any longer and allow Republicans to infiltrate our party,” the statement continued. “She misled the voters once, but that will not happen again.”

An unfazed Rios Ybarra contends that her first term in the House, when she passed seven bills, shows her mettle. One that she’s most proud of, she says, allows access to Texas beaches by disabled people in motorized vehicles — and yet Lozano has criticized her for it. “He made fun of a bill that was given to me by the mother whose son was a quadriplegic and he couldn’t have access to the beach,” she complains.

A stone-faced Lozano says, “Ask her who gave her that bill. It was a lobbyist.”

I don’t care so much about who donates to whom as I do how you vote and what you support, and I don’t really know enough about Rios Ybarra’s record to judge. Having said that, anyone who is that strongly supported by TLR is a concern. And Rios Ybarra was widely considered to be a Craddick supporter in 2008 when she knocked off Juan Escobar. That turned out not to matter then, and it’s unlikely to be an issue this time around, but it’s not impossible. On balance, if I were voting in that race, I’d be voting for Lozano.

And in a race where I already know who I’m voting for, the Ag Commish race.

Gilbert and Friedman, who were both running for governor in those now-forgotten days before Bill White threw his hat in, may find themselves coveting the same job, but their notions of what that job is could hardly be more different. Gilbert emphasizes wonky expertise and hands-on experience, while Friedman is all showmanship — few campaign stops go by without him uttering his one-liner “No cow left behind!” or mentioning his desire for his ashes to be scattered in Gov. Rick Perry’s hair.

Before Friedman’s run for governor as an independent in 2006, he says Clinton told him, “Find a few issues that are close to your heart and hammer them relentlessly.” He took the former president’s advice then and chose a couple things this time too, focusing on his passion for animal rescue and shelters. The rest, he says, he’ll leave to the experts.

“Clearly Kinky has no direction other than he wants animals to run free, and for those that nobody wants anymore he wants to build shelters in every county,” says Gilbert. “Those are noble ideas and a fairy-tale way to live life, but it’s just not practical.”

Well, this race is a clear choice, that’s for sure. Either you like what Kinky is selling, or you grew tired of it four years ago and you prefer the clearly better qualified Hank Gilbert. I really don’t know how this one will turn out, but as I said, I know who I’m supporting.