By now, you have likely heard I am proposing a transition that will move San Antonio down a path toward becoming a litter-free community.

District 7 Councilman Cris Medina
District 7 Council Member Cris Medina

Late last year, after multiple conversations with members of the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (members are appointed by each City Council member and the Mayor), I became aware of the environmental hazards of single-use plastic bags.

For some time, I had seen plastic bags strewn about our parks, caught in trees, and on frequent occasions, I had picked up countless deteriorating plastic bags during community clean-up events. I was well aware of the eyesore that the 335 plastic bags each American uses per year (U.S. International Trade Commission) cause. What I soon came to learn was that single-use plastics are not biodegrading in our landfills. In fact, many of them are making their way into our waterways  and wreaking havoc when wildlife ingest shards of bags.

I also learned about the manufacturing process of plastic bags, which requires an incredible amount of energy, often coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Creation, transport, and use of these bags just one time seems wasteful, wouldn’t you agree?

Plastic bags dot the landscape along the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.
Plastic bags dot the landscape along the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.

A transition is not about taking away your options as consumers, but is about protecting our community. This is not an attack on plastic. Plastics are an important part of our state and national economies. Many healthcare supplies used in hospitals are created from plastics, equipment needed to run our offices is constructed of plastics, and plastics are a major part of our everyday lives from the Tupperware in our fridge to the electronics we rely on.

However, single-use plastics, which include bags, bottled drinks (water, soda, etc.) and food packaging, are damaging our environment, threatening the value of our communities. A transition affords us the opportunity to protect the investments we have made in our parks and waterways. A transition protects our investments in restoring neighborhoods and business corridors enhancing the aesthetics and property values of our communities. Let us take pride in our community. We can do so by transitioning away from one-time use bags.

As single-use plastic bags litter our environment, the City of San Antonio and our regional partners like the San Antonio River Authority  spend dollars – your tax dollars – on clean-up of these bags from streets and waterways. After rain storms, local assets like Olmos Dam, Woodlawn Lake and dozens of creek beds across the city fill up not just with water, but also with trash. Much of the trash left behind is single-use plastic bags hanging from tree limb to tree limb, never to biodegrade.

As our city grows, we generate more waste. By reducing the number of single-use plastic bags at the point-of-sale in retail stores, we will avoid spending more money on maintenance costs. In fact, we can save taxpayer dollars today if each one of us commits to using reusable bags at the grocery store, the convenience store, and even when we are out shopping at the mall.

Heavy rain during late April 2013 highlights our littering problem on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.
Heavy rain during late April 2013 highlights our littering problem on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.

Challenge yourself: The next time you make a purchase of a few items, resist the temptation of accepting a plastic bag.  Do you really a need a plastic bag to hold two items?

Recycling is an option, but it is not one that people often use. In 2012, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department initiated a pilot project which had two goals: reduce the number of single-use plastic bags sold at the point-of-sale with the following retailers: JC Penny, H-E-B, Walmart, Target and Walgreens; and increase recycling of single-use plastic bags. The department spent nearly $400,000 on a marketing campaign to convey and encourage implementation of these goals. A 30 percent increase in recycling at the collection bins provided by retailers on-site was accomplished, while no change in the number of single-use plastic bags was had at the point-of-sale. These results mirror results in other cities across the United States.

The reality is that the nearly 100 cities across the county have transitioned away from single-use plastic bags, yet those same cities saw very little increase in recycling curbside or otherwise. San Jose, California, found that only four percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled (City of San Jose, California). The moral of the story here is that while recycling is possible, it is an expensive investment and it is rarely used.

Walmart Grocery checkout line. Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart.
Walmart grocery checkout line. Photo courtesy of WalMart.

Recycling will be part of our transition. In August of this year, the city will contract with a new recycling vendor who has the proper equipment to sort single-use plastic bags from our blue collection bins.

Through proper handling, San Antonio citizens will be able to recycle single-use plastic bags and other plastic bags, like the ones your produce comes in, by balling multiple bags together and placing that combined apparatus into blue recycle bins. This is an exciting option for San Antonio.

Biodegradable plastics do exist in the market, but also take energy, water and are not the most effective technology for ease and convenience. What does work, city after city, is a transition away from these bags. Los Angeles, California has realized a 94 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags (County of Los Angles). Portland, Oregon experienced a 304 percent increase in use of reusable bags (City of Portland). In San Jose, results from their transition ordinance show an 89 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags in storm drains, 60 percent reduction in creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets (City of San Jose).

If we just stop using them, we clean up our environment, protect waterways and wildlife, reduce maintenance costs, and reserve tax payer dollars for better uses like street improvements or education.

Transitions in cities like Austin and Brownsville have allowed retailers to reduce stocks of bags, and consumers to form new habits.

When my office held a roundtable discussion with retailers, we had a packed house with a cross section of business leaders, citizens, environmental stakeholders, H-E-B, Walmart, and dozens of others. Many great ideas came from that discussion. Folks are willing, in fact some are eager, to transition away from single-use plastic bags, but they want time. We can do that.

Taking time to inform small businesses, big retailers, and San Antonio citizens on what a transition will entail, and what can be recycled in a blue bin, is a critical step in a successful transition. An education program that allows folks to transition from single-use plastic bags, over time, to forming new habits with reusable bags can minimize the impact on the budgets of working class families.

The City Council’s Governance Committee will be the first council members to consider a single-use plastic bag transition. I have asked city staff to provide the Governance Committee (made up of Mayor Julián Castro, Councilman Diego Bernal, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, Councilman Rey Saldaña, and Councilman Ron Nirenberg) insight as to what education periods looked like in other cities, what worked well, and where there are opportunities to improve on those informational campaigns. I am confident that a robust educational plan will be implemented that engages schools, neighborhoods, and San Antonio businesses.

At the roundtable session held on Feb. 11, we also heard from retailers who were concerned about how a transition may affect families living on a budget. I heard this loud and clear. An education program that allows folks to transition from single-use plastic bags, over time, to forming new habits with reusable bags can minimize impacts to families on a budget.

Reusable grocery bags are becoming more common. Photo by Tim Samoff.
Reusable grocery bags are becoming more common. Photo by Tim Samoff.

Several organizations at the roundtable voiced that they are ready to provide no-cost reusable bags to consumers. I am delighted to see so many stakeholders ready to serve our greater San Antonio community. By the way, my office has given away more than 500 reusable bags, courtesy of donations from CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System and the City’s Solid Waste Management Department, and we will continue to do so. These outreach efforts allow families on a fixed income a chance to easily and affordably take part in this transition.

Reusable bags are sturdier, last longer, and can be washed and reused. VIA officials have noted that bus riders prefer reusable bags because they make carrying grocery items easier than with plastic bags which tear. Manufacturers are starting to create heavier, sturdier plastic bags that can be created from recycled plastics reducing environmental waste and keeping manufacturing jobs. These are strong examples of the market adapting to change.

Transitioning from single-use plastic to reusable bags requires, for most retailers who want to offer reusable bags in large supply for as little cost to consumers as possible, purchasing the new bags from China. This presents an opportunity to local plastic bag makers, the textile industry and entrepreneurs: Let’s manufacture reusable bags here and make them affordable for mass consumption. the city also could use a few more waste collection bins, especially recycling bins, across our city to encourage proper disposal.

My office has received more than 200 letters since I first proposed this transition in November of last year. All but two of those letters were in favor of a transition away from single-use plastic bags. Our Change.org petition to transition from single-use plastic bags has more than 900 supporters. Small business owners, local restaurants, retailers including grocery stores, have said they support a transition. The momentum is building.

A transition from single-use plastic bags at the point-of-sale matches the vision our community set out in the SA2020 Plan to reduce our waste consumption and be “a respectful steward of natural resources.” Again, the key to a successful transition for San Antonio is to allow for time to plan accordingly. More discussions will be had, including what a successful transition policy looks like. How we can incentivize retailers and consumers? And how we can be considerate of those on a fixed income while protecting our community investments?

In the meantime, I encourage you to do two things: write to my office to voice your thoughts, and take a reusable bag the next time you are out shopping.

*Featured/top image by Alex.

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Cris Medina

In his first term and a half on Council, Cris Medina has established himself as a public policy leader by offering a myriad of proposals ranging from anti-graffiti measures and the Safe Streets SA pilot...