Featured to photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/4359906568/

Should San Antonio become the next American city to ban single-use, plastic and paper bags? It seems like an inevitable, if somewhat contentious step in any city’s evolution toward a more sustainable, green culture. The answer, however, isn’t so simple the closer one examines the scope of such a proposed ordinance.

A decision on the matter was deferred at a Wednesday meeting of the City Council’s Governance Committee, although sentiment seems strongly in favor of a ban. City staff will conduct further research on the bans implemented in other cities and make a presentation and recommendation to the full City Council in late May or early June.

“I believe standing in place on this issue is not the best policy,” Mayor Julián Castro told council colleagues and senior staff present.

Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni
Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni

Deputy Peter Zanoni seemed to favor an outright ban. He noted that cities that have stopped short of a ban and instead have opted to charge small fees for plastic bag use, requiring retailers to add 5-10 cents per bag to purchases at the checkout counter, assume expensive administrative costs managing and auditing such programs. He also warned Castro and committee members that sustained public service and education programs designed to wean consumers from plastic bag use would cost millions of dollars and might not achieve desired results.

One noteworthy development announced today: Starting Aug. 1, the 344,000 single family home residents who receive the City’s recycling service will be able to add plastic bags to the list of acceptable material for blue recycle bins.

At a later council briefing, staff said residential home recycling now is at 31 percent of total home refuse, up from 5 percent decade ago, and trending toward the city’s ultimate 60 percent goal. The city’s goal of providing citywide residential composting pickup will be achieved within three years, according to David McCary, director of the Solid Waste Management Department.

Wednesday’s committee meeting focused on the proposed plastic bag ban, while the later B Session of the full City Council was devoted to the city’s recycling initiatives, and later, a discussion about renewal of the city’s dormant annexation program.

Dozens of cities have followed San Francisco, which passed the first ban against single use plastic bags in chain stores and pharmacies in 2007. Los Angeles joined 16 other California cities when it approved its plastic bag ban last year. Other cities have sought to reduce plastic and paper bag use by implementing a consumer fee of five or ten cents for each bag used at the checkout counter. Brownsville became the first Texas city to implement an outright ban, followed by Austin. Dallas launched a bag ban, which was amended to include bag use for a fee of 10 cents, which was reduced to five cents in the wake of citizen protest. 

District 7 Council Member Cris Medina
District 7 Councilman Cris Medina

District 7 City Councilman Chris Medina brought the issue to the table in San Antonio late last year. Medina made his case for the ban in an article he wrote for the Rivard Report in March this year: Plastic Bag Ban: Transitioning to a Litter-Free San Antonio. He was absent from Wednesday’s discussion, fulfilling his military duty as a reservist.

I’ve certainly done my fair share of campaigning against San Antonio’s litter problem, notably the embarrassing mess left behind at Fiesta parades and festivals every year. I credit the San Antonio River Authority, the city, and the Fiesta Commission for newfound efforts to address the problem. Randy Bear, a Fiesta Verde volunteer leader, wrote about the anti-litter efforts earlier this month: Fiesta Verde: Teaching Parade-goers To Leave It Like They Found It. Crowd behavior this parade season will be of particular interest.

Plastic bags, of course, epitomize the larger problem of litter and the need to reduce land fill waste and to increase recycling. The bags are weightless, indestructible and used by almost every retail business. They are distributed by the millions and often thoughtlessly discarded – clinging to tree branches, bushes and just about everywhere else the wind and storm runoff take them. They account for much of the litter pulled from creeks and rivers. Beyond our city, they are a global scourge.

Volunteers fan out to collect trash along the San Antonio River during the 2013 Basura Bash. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.
Volunteers fan out to collect trash along the San Antonio River during the 2013 Basura Bash. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.

Does any of that mean the bags alone should be banned?

Solid Waste Management Department Director David McCary
Solid Waste Management Department Director David McCary

Are cities enacting bans because they feel good, or are the bans making a real difference? Half of this city’s landfill is generated by commercial waste, McCary told council members, and most commercial enterprises – be they upscale restaurants, fast food joints or stores at the mall – do not recycle. Half or more of all that commercial waste could be recycled, he said.

Wouldn’t the city be taking a much bigger step in the direction of sustainability by enacting a mandatory recycling ordinance for all commercial, office and industrial businesses?

Enacting a recycling program that reaches all corners of the city is one issue yet to be fully addressed. Attacking the litter problem will require more than a ban. As any kayaker on the Mission Reach knows, there are places south of downtown where the San Antonio River bottom is carpeted with empty beer cans.

Plastic bottles and fast food packaging, including paper sacks and styrofoam burger boxes, also are found in abundance. What is really needed is a concerted public education campaign, something that makes littering socially unacceptable, something kids will chide their parents for doing. “Don’t Mess With Texas” was and is a winning campaign.

This Don't Mess With Texas-themed trash barrel greets visitors to the Liberty Bar. Photo courtesy Don't Mess With Texas.
This Don’t Mess With Texas-themed trash barrel greets visitors to the Liberty Bar. Photo courtesy Don’t Mess With Texas.

The bag bans tend to punish grocery stories, which in our city would mean H-E-B, while the biggest box stores and the thousands of fast food franchises seek waivers and exceptions. Everything from ice to dry cleaning comes packaged in plastic. Should the grocery stores be singled out while cashiers at a big box chain like Bed, Bath and Beyond package your bed pillows and throw rugs in a super-sized plastic bag? What about all that fast food packaging? Most pharmacies now sell groceries and a lot of junk food. It all comes in plastic bags. Do they make the list?

At today’s committee meeting, Councilman Diego Bernal half-jokingly remarked about the need to address “flushable wipes,” now used commonly by parents with babies and family members caring for advanced seniors. Ask anyone at SAWS about these products. They aren’t flushable at all, according to Consumer Reports, and the damage they do to the city’s sewer lines contributes to what has ballooned into a billion-dollar problem for San Antonio.

My family long ago abandoned plastic bags in favor of reusable grocery bags. We keep them handy and take them everywhere from farmer’s markets to the hardware store. But our own sons chide me for continuing to buy and use other products such as paper towels. The topic of debate around our dinner table is, perhaps, the same conversation that should take place around the City Council table before any bans are enacted: What really constitutes an environmentally conscious lifestyle?

The answer surely means shaking our dependence on plastic bags, but it also means looking beyond plastic bags. And for city officials, the challenge is to write an ordinance that is fair and equitable to all businesses and their customers. Whatever we do in San Antonio, we will be more successful if we educate people about why we are doing it and why it’s for the common good.

*Featured /top image: Photo by Flickr user Kate Ter Haar.

Related Stories:

Plastic Bag Ban: Transitioning to a Litter-Free San Antonio

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

Fiesta Verde: Teaching Parade-goers To leave It Like They Found It

Fiesta on the San Antonio River’s ‘Garbage Reach’

Basura Bash: The Big San Antonio River Clean-Up

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.