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

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.

Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”

New map makes it harder for Texas GOP to deny fracking + earthquake link

Chance-of-Earthquake-USGS

Nay-sayers are going to nay-say. And those who reject the possible link between wastewater wells used in oil and gas production and increased seismic activity in Texas – like the state Legislature and Railroad Commission — are among the biggest nay-sayers around. But the mounting evidence that concludes otherwise may force deniers to change their tune sooner rather than later.

On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a first-of-its-kind map forecasting an increased risk of earthquakes both from human-induced and natural causes over the next year in several states including Texas. State and oil and gas leaders should make good use of the map, perhaps as it’s intended to be used:

“This report can be used by government officials to make more informed decisions as well as emergency response personnel to assess vulnerability and provide safety information to those who are in potential danger. Engineers can use this product to evaluate earthquake safety of buildings, bridges, pipelines and other important structures.”

State leaders should take special note of the Geological Survey’s projection that human-induced earthquakes will be a greater risk than naturally-occurring earthquakes to people in Oklahoma and Texas.

No doubt the prediction leads many to once again ask: Is there a link between oil and gas production and earthquakes? It’s an important questions to ask, but it’s a question that has received conflicting answers.

Studies backed by energy industry leaders conveniently have shown no relationship. Environmental as well as third-party research, like those conducted by Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, says the probability of a link is convincing.

The study released by SMU last year for instance, concluded oil and gas operations are causing the tremors that began rattling the North Texas towns of Azle and Reno in November 2013.

Those findings contradicted prior statements made by the Railroad Commission of Texas that no definitive links existed between oil and gas activity and earthquakes in the state. After the SMU findings were made public, the agency repeated the statement saying there was not sufficient evidence to the SMU study claims. SMU has stood by its research.

Unlike the attitude taken with previous studies that warned of potential risks, state and industry leaders would be wise to take the opportunity to use the U.S. Geological Survey forecast as a unifier that gets everyone on the same page. At stake are the rights and safety of Texans affected by the  indisputable number of tremors that have occurred at an increasing rate.

One study by Federal Emergency Management Agency obtained by The Dallas Morning News last week detailed the potential damage from earthquakes of magnitude 4.8 and 5.6. The worse-case scenario predicted damage up to 80,000 buildings, levees collapsing and lead to $9.5 billion in economic losses. Yes, those are just predictions, but they outline potential dangers that should have proactive solutions in place.

Folks at the Railroad Commission aren’t the only ones unwilling to accept findings that may be unfavorable to the industry — but at least the agency doesn’t have the power to write laws. Which brings us to the biggest nay-sayer of them all: The GOP-led Texas Legislature.

Most recently, industry leaders successfully pressed state lawmakers to passed House Bill 40 into law giving the state exclusive jurisdiction to regulate oil and gas operations like drilling, fracking and well construction. The new law overturned any local attempts to ban fracking like the ordinance passed by the Denton City Council in 2014.

It’s true: Not all disposal wells prompt tremors. And no one denies that more research is needed, however, enough evidence now exists that naysayers no longer can afford to ignore such research, given the potential harm to Texas communities. It’s time for state leaders to use data, including the latest U.S. Geological Survey report to make more informed and balanced decisions.