Dallas is a Long, Long Way From Making Up Its Mind on a Plastic Bag Ban

A young boy buys a bag of potato chips. He's barely out of the local bodega when he takes his first bite, thoughtlessly tossing aside the plastic bag it came in. Meanwhile, in an alleyway nearby, two more of the polyethylene sacks dislodge themselves as a garbage truck empties the contents of a gray bin. The bags are caught by a breeze, eventually snagged by a tree branch or chain-link fence.

Such is the stuff of City Councilman Dwaine Caraway's nightmares. He described some of those today in emotional testimony in favor of the plastic bag ban that has become his pet issue.

"If we sit here and do nothing, it is going to mount and mount and mount," he said. "We cannot wait. Either we deal with it today or we let this pile on for five years and let this pile on and, at the end of the day, guess who's going to pay: the taxpayers. Because it will have to be cleaned up."

Caraway has made similar speeches before, but this time, he had a bit more data. City staff has spent the summer investigating possible options for dealing with single-use plastic (and paper) bags, which it detailed in a lengthy report.

There's a lot in the report to unpack, but there are a few things that jump out. One is the sheer number of plastic bags that Dallas retailers hand out every year. There was no exact figure, but Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, extrapolating from Kroger's 62-million-bag-per-year tally, puts the total in the hundreds of millions, an estimated 5 percent of which become litter. Another is the magnitude of the litter problem as a whole -- plastic bags make up just 0.6 percent of the total. Every year, the city spends $4 million on litter cleanup and education campaigns. Finally, city staff is of the opinion that bag bans passed in Austin, California and elsewhere have been quite effective.

The opinion of the City Council isn't nearly so unified. A couple of members, namely Adam Medrano and Philip Kingston, kept their remarks rather brief and gave little indication of whether they were in favor of an outright ban, some sort of fee, a yearlong litter study or none of the above.

Most of their colleagues, on the other hand, were more direct and made it excruciatingly clear that the plastic bag debate in Dallas is very far from over. Here's a quick sampling of their opinions:

Caraway: "This is like being in jail. I've never been to jail so don't get excited. I reference the jail part because you have a lot of criminals in jail, and through the pictures that we just saw -- we saws cups, bottles, bags -- the same as you have criminals in jail. But because we're dealing with the plastic bags today, the criminal is the plastic bag, and the plastic bag is on trial."

Sheffie Kadane: "Dwaine said the bags are the criminals. The bags are not the criminals. The people are the criminals. [Caraway's emotional rebuttal: "Let me be clear. If there's a criminal, then the criminal is us."]

Kadane thinks any bag-reduction effort should be left to retailers. "I'm not going to micromanage how they do business. I think they [plastic bags] are good, they're for a good use; they're easy to handle. We don't have a right to tell that retailer he can't use plastic bags."

Jerry Allen: "The solution is not a full out plastic-bag ban." That's the 'emotional response.' It has to become more of a market-based strategy." He wants to implement some type of user fee that would help fund a litter-reduction campaign.

Scott Griggs: Calls plastic bags "this generation's [litter] problem that we need through leadership to take head on." Holds up a pull tab of the type that used to open beer cans. As litter, they were once ubiquitous. "Someday I want the plastic bag to be as hard to find in city parks as this pull tab is today.

Vonciel Hill: "I think a study is the proper way to go. I don't think we have enough GOOD information to proceed at this time."

She also doesn't know "what anyone is talking about when people say 'single-use,'" since she uses them as trash-can liners and for picking up garbage.

"The litter in my district is not plastic bags. The litter in my district is chicken boxes and beer boxes."

Jennifer Staubach Gates: Called Caraway's monologue an "Oscar-worthy performance." Wants "to move forward, yet cautiously." Also, "I look forward to moving forward as quickly as possible so this doesn't linger." Conclusion: "I think it needs to be unique to Dallas. We do not need to copy what Austin is doing. We are not Austin."

Rick Callahan: Also impressed by Caraway's performance -- "I think we should give him max thespian points" but says a bag ban is "anti-choice, anti-business. Even my mother is opposed to it, and we have talked about it at great length. The enemy, folks, is really not the bag and the enemy is not the producer or the store provider. The enemy is us." Thinks a bag ban is a slippery slope: "If we ban bags, let's also ban drinking or smoking or anyone who really consumes any beverage." He has trouble with cliches: "The cat really is out of the bag, and the bag is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future."

Lee Kleinman: "My wife hates those bags, so I'll be supporting the ban."

Monica Alonzo: Wants to "bring it to the Quality of Life Committee, although it has already been to the quality of life committee already."

Sandy Greyson: "I pretty much liked what Mr. Allen said," meaning she supports some sort of user fee. "I really strongly believe we need a public education component on this issue. ...How are we going to pay for that? We have had a very successful water conservation campaign for a number of years. That has not been inexpensive. We've spent millions of dollars." A fee could help fund that.

Mayor Mike Rawlings: Wants more discussion of the various options -- not to be confused with "analysis paralysis" -- "to codify and get it real crisp." Cleanliness and litter are at the top of his priority list. "Plastic bags are a little lower. I want to respect our retailers and listen to the citizens of Dallas." Basically just wants to have a town hall meeting.

The council didn't take any official action, but the matter looks like it's headed back to committee.

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