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More Texas Cities Considering Bans on Plastic Grocery Bags

Litter like this on Padre Island prompted several Texas coastal cities to ban plastic bags.
Litter like this on Padre Island prompted several Texas coastal cities to ban plastic bags.
Photo by Barclay Nix

Brownsville set a trend last year when it became the first city in Texas to ban the use of plastic grocery bags in nearly all consumer settings. Brownsville mayor Pat Ahumada told the New York Times that the ban had eliminated 350,000 plastic bags per day, a decrease that "transformed our city from littered and dirty to a much cleaner city."

Now, Corpus Christi is considering the same ban, a proposal which will be discussed by its City Council tomorrow afternoon. Advocates of the ban cite a multitude of reasons why eliminating plastic grocery bags will be better for the city in the long run: The city's recycling center is bogged down by 100 tons of the bags because there is no market for them and city workers spend about $100,000 a year cleaning up plastic bag-based litter throughout Corpus Christi.

The plan to ban plastic bags is catching on throughout Texas: Fort Stockton, South Padre Island and Pecos all instituted bans of their own, following Brownsville's lead. Elsewhere, Austin, San Antonio and McAllen are also considering bans as Americans continue to use plastic bags at a staggering rate: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year. They end up in landfills -- where they nearly refuse to decompose -- or littering every inch of the landscape. Only 2 percent of those 100 billion bags are ever recycled.

And nearly a year later, most Brownsville residents are glad the plastic grocery bags were banned. Residents raved that the city was much cleaner without plastic bag litter on the roads and in waterways, although bringing their own bags took a little getting used to.

But for all the positive changes, the ban is not without its detractors.

A sea of plastic bags shimmer in a landfill, where they will take between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose.
A sea of plastic bags shimmer in a landfill, where they will take between 500 and 1,000 years to decompose.
Photo by Fantaz

Ahead of the initial Brownsville ban, an organization put together by the American Chemistry Council campaigned to keep the bags in stores, asking residents: "Do you rely on free plastic grocery bags?"

"Plastics bag manufacturers directly employ more than 2,600 people in the state of Texas," the ACC claimed. And, they claimed, "plastic grocery bags are extremely resource-efficient," costing less to transport than paper bags. However, the organization seemed to gloss over the fact that the plastic bag ban encourages people to bring their own reusable bags in lieu of going back to paper bags, and also said nothing to address the litter situation caused by plastic bags.

And Brownsville residents initially told the New York Times that they were wasting energy and money driving to stores outside of the city limits that still stocked plastic grocery bags, rather than bringing their own, although that attitude seems to have faded within the last year.

Above: Literally the only time that a piece of plastic bag litter has been of any greater use than clogging waterways or medians.

Other detractors claim that the ban hurts lower-income shoppers, who are "forced" to purchase reusable bags for a dollar more. This claim holds little water, however, as grocery stores still offer paper bags (for free). And wounding people in their pocketbooks for an extra dollar is chump change compared to the money saved by not having to chase plastic bags during litter clean-ups, to say nothing of the cost of sparing the environment of so-called "bag blight" in the long run.

But it's these detractors who are holding up the bag ban in other cities like Austin, where attempts to introduce the ban by 2013 have been delayed by costly research and a fear of lawsuits like those that have arisen in California.

Dallas and Houston have remained completely mum on whether or not a bag ban could ever be passed in either city. But you only have to look at the plastic bag-strewn banks of Buffalo Bayou to see that something, someday, needs to be done.



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