The Plastic Bag Debate in Texas Has Gone Off the Rails

Austin's plastic bag ban has been in effect for three weeks now, and the city has so far managed to avoid economic Armageddon. Austinites, it seems, are still able to buy groceries, go shopping, and order restaurant takeout. They just have to carry their purchases in reusable bags.

It's an admittedly blunt instrument. A more market-based approach might be more palatable, say factoring in environmental costs into plastic bags' price or making customers pay for each one they use, but an outright ban seems to be the only realistic policy option for cities awash in polyethelene totes. Like Dallas, where such a measure is more or less inevitable.

Opponents have cobbled together a number of arguments against plastic bag bans: they increase greenhouse gas emissions; enable shoplifters; and generally tread on our God-given freedoms.

All of this culminated in state Representative Drew Springer filing the "Shopping Bag Freedom Act," which would ban bag bans. Springer defended it yesterday in a hearing of the House Urban Affairs Committee.

"The city, I believe, has overstepped their role and my bill brings in freedoms back to the individuals to make that choice with their merchant," he told the Texas Observer. "So it actually creates freedom, rather than imposing more [regulations] on people."

The ability to carry one's groceries in a flimsy sack seems a flimsy pretext for taking a principled stand against government intrusion, which is presumably why Springer quickly turned to the threat of increased E. coli infections and the associated cost to taxpayers.

"From a Medicaid standpoint ... the City of Austin's bag ban will cost the state of Texas $345,000," Springer said. "I'm going to look to make sure that if the bag ban doesn't pass, that we find a way to make sure the City of Austin pays the taxpayers around the state for that increase of Medicaid cost."

The E. coli claim was actually borne out by a study carried out in the wake of San Francisco's bag ban thanks to residents neglecting to wash out their reusable bags. But that seems like a problem that could just as easily solved through education as by reversing the ban.

But Springer and the plastic bag truthers aren't the only crazies in this debate. Yesterday's hearing brought environmentalists to the Capitol to protest. You can find out all you need to know about that from the picture above.

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