Austin’s Plastic Bag Ban Is Over. Now What?

Reusable Bags

By now you’ve probably heard the news – Austin’s plastic bag ban has been struck down by the Texas Supreme Court.

So what does that mean exactly? What’s the future of plastic bags in Austin?

Let’s take a look.

Why was the plastic bag ban struck down?

Austin isn’t the only city in Texas with a plastic bag ban. About a dozen others have passed them as well, including Laredo, Sunset Valley, Port Aransas, Fort Stockton, and South Padre Island. In 2015, the Laredo Merchants Association sued, saying that Laredo’s plastic bag ban was in violation of state law.

That case made it all the way to the Texas State Supreme Court, which issued a ruling at the end of June. The judges unanimously found that Laredo’s ban violates a state law, which says that local governments cannot,“prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

In the end, the case ended up coming down to arguments over what exactly “solid waste management purposes” means. When does a plastic bag become trash? Is it trash as soon as it enters the customer’s hands? In other words, it was all about semantics.

So what has been the effect?

After the Supreme Court Ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to all of the Texas cities with bag bans saying that they are no longer legal or enforceable.

What are people doing about it?

Immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the local environmental organization Texas Campaign for the Environment launched a new effort – calling on individual retailers to maintain the status quo and not bring plastic bags back to their stores.

Plastic Bags TCE

“If retailers truly want to be good partners for our community they should not willfully bring back this pollution source to us,” wrote Texas Campaign For the Environment on their website. “Tell them to keep their stores single-use bag free!”

They’re asking the public to do a few things:

  • Go to your local HEB/Walmart/Target/Randall’s, ask to speak to a manager and explain to them why you don’t want plastic bags to return. Then take a selfie with the manager and post it on social media using the hasthag #dontbringbackbags.
  • Send a tweet or post on Facebook sharing your feelings about the plastic bag ban. Tag local retailers in the process.

As Andrew Dobbs (Central Texas program director for TCE) explains it, the idea here is to put public pressure on retailers now that they have no legal obligation to keep plastic bags out of their stores.

So far, there haven’t been a lot of public announcements about what Austin’s major retailers plan to do. In a tweet posted in early July, H-E-B said that they were still looking into the issue and wouldn’t be making any immediate changes until they did some more research.

In response to the ruling, Austin’s lone conservative City Council Member, Ellen Troxclair, posted on Facebook, “The ban is another example of government micro-managing our lives with detrimental unintended consequences…I’m glad to hear of the court’s ruling and hope it means that we will have one less regulation in Austin soon!”

So why did we pass a plastic bag ban in the first place? Was it working?

Every city that passed a bag ban in Texas had its own reasons for doing so. South Padre Island cited beach pollution, damage to its tourism industry, and a negative effect on turtles. More rural cities have passed bans to help protect cattle and other livestock, who eat the bags when the wind brings them onto ranch land.

Austin’s bag ban went into effect in 2013 and was aimed at reducing pollution and helping the city reach its own zero waste goals. (Austin wants to be diverting 90 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2040).

Two years later, the city released a study on the how the bag ban was doing. The study pointed to some positives of the ban (the number of single-use plastic bags appeared to decreased dramatically, helping to reduce pollution in our local waterways, parks, etc), as well as some unintended consequences/areas that needed improvement (a big jump in reusable plastic bags, like the ones sold at H-E-B, being sent to the landfill/local recycling centers).

So how does this fit into the local vs. state debate?

The end of plastic bag bans in Texas plays into the ongoing debate over local control and state power. This has been one of the central issues dominating our state Legislature in recent years, as increasingly liberal cities continue to clash with a more conservative state government. Arguments have broken out about cities’ ability to regulate everything from fracking to tree preservation.

In light of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, this local vs. state debate will likely play out in the upcoming 2019 legislative session as well, as environmental organizations fight to get the Legislature to change the law and allow cities to pass plastic bag bans (if they want them). This effort will also be closely tied to one being led by Environment Texas to overturn the state’s longstanding rule against cities passing styrofoam bans.

So stayed tuned… because this debate is far from over.


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