City of Austin Holds Public Forum On Plastic Bags

City of Austin Holds Public Forum On Plastic Bags

Monday, January 30, 2012 - The city of Austin, Texas held a public forum on the issue of banning plastic and paper bags tonight. Entitled, Interactive Forum on the Future of Plastic and Paper Bags in Austin, the program itinerary included presentations, a poll, a question and answer session, and finally, a public comment session.

Lasting almost three hours, Mayor Lee Leffingwell began the program by reiterating previous actions that the city had taken in the past few years to reduce the use of plastic bags in Austin. The city started its efforts on April 14, 2007 - almost five years ago.

Presentations were at the top of the program. Leading off was Ronnie Volkening, President of the Texas Retailers Association(TRA). The TRA opposes the plastic bag ban. This would be expected since Mark Daniels, a Vice President of Hilex Poly, the plastic bag maker, was a Director of TRA.

Mr. Volkening told of how a collaboration by five of Texas' largest retailers had reduced plastic bag usage by 20% in 2008. He spoke of other initiatives to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and said the Austin City Council will hinder recycling. Recyclers depend on the flow of plastic bags and the ordinance will restrict that flow.

According to the US EPA, in 2010, the category of plastics which includes bags, sacks, and wraps was recycled at almost 12 percent. Specific recycling rates for the state of Texas wasn't found, so applying the national rate to the city of Austin's plastic bag usage of 263 million annually(1), just over 2.5 million bags go to the recyclers each month.

Mr. Volkening also said that a recent poll showed that over 50% of Austin citizens opposed the plastic bag ban. However, the poll was sponsored by the TRA and paid for by the American Chemistry Council.(2) I'm not sure how much weight the poll carries since there were only 402 respondents and Austin has around 800,000 residents. That's a .05% response rate.

The next presenter on the program was Mark Daniels, Vice President of Sustainability at Hilex Poly, a leading plastic bag manufacturer and recycler. Mr. Daniels stated that, instead of a ban, the city should look to increase recycling. Hilex Poly operates the largest closed loop plastic bag recycling facility in the world.(3) Mr. Daniels mentioned the fact that Texas jobs in the plastic industry would be lost if the ordinance is passed.

Later, in reference to the ordinance requiring a 4 mil plastic bag, Mr. Daniels said there was no manufacturer in the US that made a 4 mil bag. In a quick check, I found three websites that had 4 mil plastic bags and claimed they were made in the US.

Robin Schneider, of the Texas Campaign for the Environment spoke of the cost of pollution from checkout bags. She said plastic bags clog recycling machinery and waste water treatment facilities. She showed a photo of a landfill where plastic debris had blown over the fence onto a neighboring land owners property. She said the landowner's cows ate the plastic bags. She said the city had received over 5,000 letters in support of the ban.

The Director of the city's trash and recycling department, Bob Gedert, talked about the 3rd draft of the ordinance. He explained the timeline and the three phases of the ordinance: Phase I: Education; Phase II: Transition; Phase III: Ban takes effect.

A unique section not seen in any other plastic bag ban, during the temporary surcharge period, the ordinance allows the retailer to choose between two methods of charging for bags, either ten cents per bag or one dollar per transaction. If 'per transaction' is chosen, the one dollar fee would cover all bags needed.

The next portion of the Forum allowed for questions. Questions were taken from audience members, by phone, and online. Each question was directed toward one of the presenters to answer. Most questions were directed at clarifying points of the ordinance or verifying statements made by one of the presenters.

After all questions were answered, the Forum allowed comments. I thought that it was interesting to note that, after the question and answer section, Ronnie Volkening and Mark Daniels left the Forum and didn't stay to hear the citizens' comments.

One commenter, who worked for Hilex Poly in Texas, presented a petition against the ban bearing 600 signatures of Texas residents. Another commenter presented 3886 letters opposed to the ordinance.

At the beginning of the Plastic and Paper Bag Forum, and again at the end, a survey was provided for citizens to vote on several questions pertaining to the ban. Audience members had a paper ballot, phone callers could text their vote on each issue.

At the end of the forum, calculated to that point, in response to the question, "In your opinion, should Austin regulate:
1) Paper Bags
2) Plastic Bags
3) Paper and Plastic
4) Neither
58% of the respondents said 'Paper and Plastic'

The Austin City Council will consider the 3rd Draft of the Ordinance on March 1st, 2012.

And that's the way it was in Austin, Texas on Monday, Jan 30, 2012.

(1) Mayor Lee Leffingwell website.
(2) The Statesman
(3) Hilex Poly
(4) 3rd Draft of Ordinance to Regulate Carryout Bags in Austin, Texas
(6) Cover photo: Austin City Hall. Courtesy: Wikipedia

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