Grumet: Did Austinites really buy into the city’s plastic bag ban?

After a Texas Supreme Court ruling last month striking down plastic bag bans, Austin stores are deciding whether to bring back this single-use bags. (2012 file photo)

While H-E-B and other retailers consider whether to bring back disposable plastic bags, I’ve heard some interesting discussions about how much Austinites actually supported the city’s recently nullified plastic bag ban.

That’s because plastic bags didn’t entirely go away. Remember, Austin’s ordinance only barred stores from providing those wispy, single-use plastic bags, but H-E-B lawfully provides thicker, reusable plastic bags for sale. Did residents simply replace one kind of plastic bag with another, and send the same amount of plastic into the trash?

Let’s look at the numbers.

Our recent editorial noted the bag ban led to Austinites using nearly 200 million fewer disposable plastic bags a year. But that same editorial also pointed out the weight of single-use plastic bags kept out of the landfill was nearly offset by the 23 tons of the thicker, reusable plastic bags arriving each year at the city’s recycling centers. Those centers aren’t equipped to recycle plastic bags, so those bags end up going to the landfill.

A reader suggested these numbers mean Austinites didn’t strongly support the city’s bag ban, which the City Council approved in 2012 and the Texas Supreme Court struck down last month. When the free disposable bags went away, the logic goes, customers simply paid for the heavier, reusable plastic bags and then threw them away, too.

I don’t think that’s the story those numbers tell, though.

Consider the old brain-teaser about which weighs more: A ton of feathers or a ton of bricks? The answer, of course, is they weigh the same. A ton is a ton. It just takes more truckloads of feathers than bricks to hit the one-ton mark.

That’s also the case with plastic bags: Specifically, you get about seven times as many disposable plastic bags per ton as you would thicker, reusable plastic bags, according to the weights of both bags provided in this 2015 report for the city.

That report even included a helpful photo from H-E-B showing, on left, a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags; in middle, a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags; and on right, a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags.

HEB bags

This photo provides an at-a-glance comparison of a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags (left); a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags (middle); and a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags (right). H-E-B provided this image for a 2015 Austin report on the city’s plastic bag ban.

Let’s be clear: 23 tons of plastics headed to the landfill is a bad thing, whether it’s composed of thicker, reusable bags, or seven times as many disposable plastic bags. But in terms of measuring Austinites’ compliance with the spirit of the bag ban, the number of bags matters. Considering the weight of discarded bags remained about the same, it seems only a fraction of Austinites were throwing out the heavier, reusable plastic bags, compared to the number of residents who used to toss disposable plastic bags.

In other words, many Austin residents made the switch to reusable cloth bags, or used the heavier, reusable plastic bags repeatedly, as intended.

I should also tell you: None of these plastic bags have to go in the trash.

True, you can’t recycle them in the blue recycling bin that you roll out to your curb. But H-E-B and Randall’s have recycling bins near their store entrances where customers can drop off plastic bags and other kinds of plastic film, such as bubble wrap and the plastic wrapping that comes around paper towels.

Last year H-E-B recycled about 1,000 tons of plastics statewide from those bins, spokeswoman Leslie Sweet told me. She didn’t have a breakdown for the Austin area or for plastic bags only. But rest assured that number includes some of those heavier, reusable plastic bags, which in fact bear markings on the bottom proclaiming they are “recyclable.”

HEB_reusablebag

The thicker, reusable plastic bags sold by H-E-B are labeled as recyclable – but you can’t put them in Austin’s blue recycling bins.

Why doesn’t the city recycle them?

Blame the machinery. The items placed in residents’ curbside blue bins go to recycling processing centers where machines separate paper from metal and glass bottles from plastic ones. Any kind of soft plastic material, such as plastic bags or bubble wrap, gums up the gears, a city spokeswoman told me.

But the city does accept plastic bags and film for recycling if you drop it off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center in Southeast Austin.