The City Is Marching Toward a Plastic Bag Ban

In a weekend story previewing the City Council's discussion today on single-use plastic bags, the Dallas Morning News ran a photo of a tattered Kroger bag snagged on a barbed wire fence, downtown Dallas looming as a backdrop.

"What I want to hear is who's going to go get these bags off this barbed wire," Councilman Dwaine Caraway said, taking the floor after a briefing by Frank Camp, the city's environmental director. "This is on there today. If we do not get it off today and it stays there another year, there's gonna be five more bags on this wire and five years from now there's gonna be even more bags on this barbed wire. Who's gonna go clean up this barbed wire?"

He turned to Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata. "Do we have people climbing up on this barbed wire in the cold taking down these bags. Mr. Zapata?"

"No, sir," Zapata replied.

Caraway thundered on: "At some point in 2015 or 2018, someone's gonna have to bear the costs of cleaning up these bags off this barbed wire. ... The grocery stores aren't cleaning 'em up." Here he paused to whisper a word of greeting to Kroger rep Gary Huddleston, who was in the audience. "They're selling them, but they're not cleaning them up." And neither is anyone else, seemed to be his gist.

Camp summed it up much more succinctly in his briefing: "We have bags in the street, bags in the water, bags in the trees. It's an environmental problem."

And what to do about it? There are a few options, like continuing the current (and largely ineffective) voluntary bag reduction program; if the city wants to lobby lawmakers in hopes of changing the state law that currently prohibits it, they can force retailers to charge a fee for single-use plastic bags; or, they can simply kick the can down the road and wait on the results of a "litter-proliferation study."

Or, they can take Caraway's lead and shoot for an all-out ban. "We have a problem," Caraway says. "And I'm the one bold enough to address it."

The proposed ordinance would ban all single-use carryout bags, paper or plastic. Dry-cleaning bags, newspaper bags, dog-crap bags, garbage bags, yard waste bags would be exempted, as would some paper and plastic bags used by restaurants and pharmacies. Otherwise, it applies to all business establishments. The entire ordinance is here.

The momentum seems to be with him, unlike when the proposal previously surfaced five years ago. Several Texas cities have since implemented bag bans, among them Austin, Brownsville, and South Padre Island. And while Caraway's colleague's expressed some concern about the cost of a public education campaign (Austin's was $890,000) and the impact on consumers, the sentiment was generally positive. The two committees that considered the proposal today passed it along to the full City Council for a vote, probably in August.

There are still some details to be worked out, particularly given Caraway's insistence that "the consumer should have to pay not one dime for these bags."

You might wonder, as Vonciel Jones Hill did, "Would not the cost of those bags be part of doing business, and aren't those costs passed along to consumers?" That would be the typical response of a business faced with rising costs, but Caraway has an equally market-driven proposal.

He used Coca Cola as an example. The company spends untold millions of dollars marketing its product to consumers. Why not spend some of those dollars putting its logo on reusable grocery bags? And not just Coca Cola. Other companies could do it too.

"Knowing advertising, it would behoove a company such as Coca Cola, such as Dr. Pepper and Pepsi, to put their name on a bag so we can continue to buy their product and [they can] use those bags as an incentive to buy their product."

So, problem solved. Let's hope the epidemic of obese diabetics has an equally elegant solution.

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