Plastic Bag Ban: Transitioning to a Litter-Free San Antonio

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By now, you have likely heard I am proposing a transition that will move San Antonio down a path toward becoming a litter-free community.

District 7 Councilman Cris Medina

District 7 Council Member Cris Medina

Late last year, after multiple conversations with members of the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee (members are appointed by each City Council member and the Mayor), I became aware of the environmental hazards of single-use plastic bags.

For some time, I had seen plastic bags strewn about our parks, caught in trees, and on frequent occasions, I had picked up countless deteriorating plastic bags during community clean-up events. I was well aware of the eyesore that the 335 plastic bags each American uses per year (U.S. International Trade Commission) cause. What I soon came to learn was that single-use plastics are not biodegrading in our landfills. In fact, many of them are making their way into our waterways  and wreaking havoc when wildlife ingest shards of bags.

I also learned about the manufacturing process of plastic bags, which requires an incredible amount of energy, often coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Creation, transport, and use of these bags just one time seems wasteful, wouldn’t you agree?

Plastic bags dot the landscape along the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.

Plastic bags dot the landscape along the San Antonio River. Photo courtesy Basura Bash.

A transition is not about taking away your options as consumers, but is about protecting our community. This is not an attack on plastic. Plastics are an important part of our state and national economies. Many healthcare supplies used in hospitals are created from plastics, equipment needed to run our offices is constructed of plastics, and plastics are a major part of our everyday lives from the Tupperware in our fridge to the electronics we rely on.

However, single-use plastics, which include bags, bottled drinks (water, soda, etc.) and food packaging, are damaging our environment, threatening the value of our communities. A transition affords us the opportunity to protect the investments we have made in our parks and waterways. A transition protects our investments in restoring neighborhoods and business corridors enhancing the aesthetics and property values of our communities. Let us take pride in our community. We can do so by transitioning away from one-time use bags.

As single-use plastic bags litter our environment, the City of San Antonio and our regional partners like the San Antonio River Authority  spend dollars – your tax dollars – on clean-up of these bags from streets and waterways. After rain storms, local assets like Olmos Dam, Woodlawn Lake and dozens of creek beds across the city fill up not just with water, but also with trash. Much of the trash left behind is single-use plastic bags hanging from tree limb to tree limb, never to biodegrade.

As our city grows, we generate more waste. By reducing the number of single-use plastic bags at the point-of-sale in retail stores, we will avoid spending more money on maintenance costs. In fact, we can save taxpayer dollars today if each one of us commits to using reusable bags at the grocery store, the convenience store, and even when we are out shopping at the mall.

Heavy rain during late April 2013 highlights our littering problem on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.

Heavy rain during late April 2013 highlights our littering problem on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.

Challenge yourself: The next time you make a purchase of a few items, resist the temptation of accepting a plastic bag.  Do you really a need a plastic bag to hold two items?

Recycling is an option, but it is not one that people often use. In 2012, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department initiated a pilot project which had two goals: reduce the number of single-use plastic bags sold at the point-of-sale with the following retailers: JC Penny, H-E-B, Walmart, Target and Walgreens; and increase recycling of single-use plastic bags. The department spent nearly $400,000 on a marketing campaign to convey and encourage implementation of these goals. A 30 percent increase in recycling at the collection bins provided by retailers on-site was accomplished, while no change in the number of single-use plastic bags was had at the point-of-sale. These results mirror results in other cities across the United States.

The reality is that the nearly 100 cities across the county have transitioned away from single-use plastic bags, yet those same cities saw very little increase in recycling curbside or otherwise. San Jose, California, found that only four percent of single-use plastic bags are recycled (City of San Jose, California). The moral of the story here is that while recycling is possible, it is an expensive investment and it is rarely used.

Walmart Grocery checkout line. Photo courtesy of Wal-Mart.

Walmart grocery checkout line. Photo courtesy of WalMart.

Recycling will be part of our transition. In August of this year, the city will contract with a new recycling vendor who has the proper equipment to sort single-use plastic bags from our blue collection bins.

Through proper handling, San Antonio citizens will be able to recycle single-use plastic bags and other plastic bags, like the ones your produce comes in, by balling multiple bags together and placing that combined apparatus into blue recycle bins. This is an exciting option for San Antonio.

Biodegradable plastics do exist in the market, but also take energy, water and are not the most effective technology for ease and convenience. What does work, city after city, is a transition away from these bags. Los Angeles, California has realized a 94 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags (County of Los Angles). Portland, Oregon experienced a 304 percent increase in use of reusable bags (City of Portland). In San Jose, results from their transition ordinance show an 89 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags in storm drains, 60 percent reduction in creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets (City of San Jose).

If we just stop using them, we clean up our environment, protect waterways and wildlife, reduce maintenance costs, and reserve tax payer dollars for better uses like street improvements or education.

Transitions in cities like Austin and Brownsville have allowed retailers to reduce stocks of bags, and consumers to form new habits.

When my office held a roundtable discussion with retailers, we had a packed house with a cross section of business leaders, citizens, environmental stakeholders, H-E-B, Walmart, and dozens of others. Many great ideas came from that discussion. Folks are willing, in fact some are eager, to transition away from single-use plastic bags, but they want time. We can do that.

Taking time to inform small businesses, big retailers, and San Antonio citizens on what a transition will entail, and what can be recycled in a blue bin, is a critical step in a successful transition. An education program that allows folks to transition from single-use plastic bags, over time, to forming new habits with reusable bags can minimize the impact on the budgets of working class families.

The City Council’s Governance Committee will be the first council members to consider a single-use plastic bag transition. I have asked city staff to provide the Governance Committee (made up of Mayor Julián Castro, Councilman Diego Bernal, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, Councilman Rey Saldaña, and Councilman Ron Nirenberg) insight as to what education periods looked like in other cities, what worked well, and where there are opportunities to improve on those informational campaigns. I am confident that a robust educational plan will be implemented that engages schools, neighborhoods, and San Antonio businesses.

At the roundtable session held on Feb. 11, we also heard from retailers who were concerned about how a transition may affect families living on a budget. I heard this loud and clear. An education program that allows folks to transition from single-use plastic bags, over time, to forming new habits with reusable bags can minimize impacts to families on a budget.

Reusable grocery bags are becoming more common. Photo by Tim Samoff.

Reusable grocery bags are becoming more common. Photo by Tim Samoff.

Several organizations at the roundtable voiced that they are ready to provide no-cost reusable bags to consumers. I am delighted to see so many stakeholders ready to serve our greater San Antonio community. By the way, my office has given away more than 500 reusable bags, courtesy of donations from CPS Energy, the San Antonio Water System and the City’s Solid Waste Management Department, and we will continue to do so. These outreach efforts allow families on a fixed income a chance to easily and affordably take part in this transition.

Reusable bags are sturdier, last longer, and can be washed and reused. VIA officials have noted that bus riders prefer reusable bags because they make carrying grocery items easier than with plastic bags which tear. Manufacturers are starting to create heavier, sturdier plastic bags that can be created from recycled plastics reducing environmental waste and keeping manufacturing jobs. These are strong examples of the market adapting to change.

Transitioning from single-use plastic to reusable bags requires, for most retailers who want to offer reusable bags in large supply for as little cost to consumers as possible, purchasing the new bags from China. This presents an opportunity to local plastic bag makers, the textile industry and entrepreneurs: Let’s manufacture reusable bags here and make them affordable for mass consumption. the city also could use a few more waste collection bins, especially recycling bins, across our city to encourage proper disposal.

My office has received more than 200 letters since I first proposed this transition in November of last year. All but two of those letters were in favor of a transition away from single-use plastic bags. Our Change.org petition to transition from single-use plastic bags has more than 900 supporters. Small business owners, local restaurants, retailers including grocery stores, have said they support a transition. The momentum is building.

A transition from single-use plastic bags at the point-of-sale matches the vision our community set out in the SA2020 Plan to reduce our waste consumption and be “a respectful steward of natural resources.” Again, the key to a successful transition for San Antonio is to allow for time to plan accordingly. More discussions will be had, including what a successful transition policy looks like. How we can incentivize retailers and consumers? And how we can be considerate of those on a fixed income while protecting our community investments?

In the meantime, I encourage you to do two things: write to my office to voice your thoughts, and take a reusable bag the next time you are out shopping.

*Featured/top image by Alex.

Related Stories:

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

Fiesta on the San Antonio River’s ‘Garbage Reach’

Basura Bash: The Big San Antonio River Clean-Up

23 thoughts on “Plastic Bag Ban: Transitioning to a Litter-Free San Antonio

  1. Right on, Chris! Hope San Antonio and surrounding areas, with the cooperation of HEB, Walmart, Home Depot and other Mom and Pop stores, buy in to your initiative. It’s time we started taking better care of our environment.

  2. “but they want time. We can do that.” Really? Why? If it’s the right thing to do, and it is, pull the plug. Get ride of these plastic bags.

  3. Great article, Cris! Within 5 minutes working at the Basura Bash a few weeks ago was all I needed to know that we need a plastic ban. Thank you for taking leadership on this.

  4. Environmentally, I would like to see a true ban, and I would support such a policy if that is what is ultimately proposed. Practically, however, I think charging a nominal fee per single-use bag would move people toward the goal and still preserve our freedom to choose. The regulation could be tiered, increasing the fee over time eventually leading to a ban. This approach would mirror the city’s multi-family recycling initiative. If a tiered approach is implemented, it would be important that the timeline for increasing the penalty not be extended to the point that it dilutes the policy.
    I strongly oppose retailers effort to continue with a 100% voluntary policy that carries no stick (or in this case, twig). Been there done that. It doesn’t work. It’s discourage to stand in line at my H-E-B and see almost no one providing their own bags.
    I applaud your efforts and will assist with any grassroots efforts to advance the goal.

  5. I am surprised your office is considering banning plastic bags, after the fact that the City Of Austin is being sued at the moment citing Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resources Code.

    This should be tabled.

    Your district office is not in compliance with the ADA. I took pictures documenting such fact.

    I think you need to make your district office off Loop 410 accessible so that members of the disabled community can have a voice on this.

    As someone who walks with a cane, and has to navigate steep hills (Vance Jackson between Wurzbach and Huebner is an example, another examples are Rockhill/ Urban Crest in the Northwood subdivision, and S Vandiver Road where the little Caesars used to be.)

    Instead of banning plastic bags, which will be proven discriminatory against persons with disabilities under State law, the city needs to offer incentives such as you spend $8 at a store in the city limits, you get 25 cents off for bringing your own bag. Such a incentive would not violate state disability protection laws.

    I went to your office with a copy of the lawsuit that I filed against the city of Austin, and explained the difficulties navigating your office by foot, and you were supposed to contact me via telephone, however, you refused to do so.

    I take it VIA didn’t do a thorough count, and it didn’t mention Via Trans users.

    As for Abbey F.’s statement, she must drive, and not take the bus, nor know persons with disabilities who are effected by such ban, who can no longer independently shop when purchasing bedding, and housewares as the extra large sized plastic bags are no longer made available as a consequence.

    You should look up http://www.plastics2oil.com which converts plastic bags into crayons and faux wood furnishings, you could bring such recycling plant into the city and hire at-risk youth, persons that just got out of the criminal justice system, and the homeless improving the cities quality of life.

    Also, you should work with Bexar County to get inmates and persons who are on deferred adjudication to pick up the plastic bags and other debris (which you are neglecting to show) as part of their community service. How come no body is advocating for this?

    I promise you that if you ban plastic bags in San Antonio I will file a lawsuit against the city.

    • I remember when retailers would ask paper or plastic, plastic bags does have its uses, paper does too. If you want to see less plastic bag floating around on the streets hire real garbage men, the robotic trash collecting trucks dump more trash on the streets then before. order all grocery stores to recycle customers used plastic bags, and require them to offer paper and plastic bags.

  6. Here is a company that El Paso, Texas uses to recycle plastic bags

    http://www.trex.com/our-company/product-innovation/

    They also have contracts to build park benches!

    KFOX14 – kfoxtv.com – Search Results The following is an archived video story. The text content of that video story is available below for reference. The original video has been deleted and is no longer available. Help turn plastic bags into a park bench By: Jesse Martinez EL PASO, Texas The City of El Paso wants the public’s help to turn thousands of plastic bags into a park bench. The city is working with the Trex Company to create this plastic bag recycling challenge with the hopes of turning 70,000 bags into a park bench. “The goal of this exciting new initiative is to make recycling more of a social norm in our community, where citizens will begin to develop a deeper understanding of how to reduce their waste, lessen the amount of waste going into our landfill and see how recycling helps to give a valuable resource a second life,” said Romie Ruiz, Partnerships and Public Programs coordinator for the Environmental Services Department. Residents can take empty plastic bags including grocery bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, newspaper sleeves, ice bags, food storage bags, produce bags, bubble wrap and cereal bags to designated city facilities. The following drop off sites will be available: 7968 San Paulo Dr. 9311 Alameda Ave. 4451 Delta Dr. 7400 High Ridge Dr. 11620 Vista Del Sol Dr. 4435 Maxwell Ave. 620 E. Seventh Ave. 4001 E. Paisano Dr. 6701 Convair Rd. Officials said Trex, the country’s largest manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing products, needs about 70,000 bags to create the park bench that will be given to the city.

    Read More at: http://www.kfoxtv.com/template/cgi-bin/archived.pl?type=basic&file=/news/features/top-stories/stories/archive/2013/10/owZbQw5w.xml#.Uxl0h850mdw

    Can we have this in San Antonio, would create jobs.

  7. Great message, Councilman! One of our local grocers – Sprouts – takes the initiative from a slightly different direction. When I use my own bags, I am credited 5 cents on every bag I use at the register. I use 3 bags, I get 15 cents off my total. It’s not much, but everyone likes to get a little something back. It incentivizes good behavior. Let’s get rid of the bags – looking forward to being able to recycle from home!

    • Tami, persons with disabilities need plastic bags to carry housewares, pillows, and boxed items. Not everyone drives. Austin wasn’t mindful of the fact, instead of talking incentives, they went straight for the ban. Now they are being sued because of it.

      I would like to see Trex build a recycling plant that will take those plastic bags or we ship them to Trex and they can make decking and furniture out of plastic grocery bags. It can be done.

  8. The City of Kermit Texas enacted a single use Plastic Bag ban in 2013… If they did the right thing, so can San Antonio. If one can carry their items home in a plastic bag… Why can’t they carry a bag to the store first?

  9. Chip- Kermit, Texas does not have a public transportation provider. You must own a CAR to survive in Kermit, Texas. Just like with New Braunfels, and Spicewood, Texas. Just an FYI.

    Kermit, Texas probably has maybe 1 or 2 major stores. Name a Dillard’s or JC Penny’s in Kermit?

    • Ok but If one can carry a 1-time use, environmentally unfriendly bag home FROM a store – why can’t they carry a multi use environmentally friendly bag TO the store? // Plastic bags have got to go.

      • Chip you are missing the point, also you didn’t answer my questions. San Antonio has Public Transportation, Kermit on the other hand, does not.

        why can’t they carry a multi use environmentally friendly bag TO the store? Plastic bags are environmentally friendly, you just got to recycle them a certain way.

        Plus, why would you deny or conspire to deny persons with disabilities of their right to use public facilities in the State of Texas (which is illegal per State Law) ?

        Grocery Stores and Retail outlets are public facilities. Plastic bags (esp. the Bed and Bath) size bags are assistive devices. Retailers know this. Can you fit a Full sized pillow in those reusable bags? Can you fit a pots and pans set in those reusable bags pictured?

        Bag bans discriminate against the disabled.

        Because Austin’s ordinance, I can no longer shop independently for housewares, and home furnishings, and as a result, I am taking them to court. Because State law conflicts.

        I would invite you to come to my Austin residence and we can have a challenge. Homegoods is in walking distance, we will buy a full sized pillow, and pots and pans set, remember you will have to leave your car parked, and not in use, and you can only walk to the store from the house and back.

        There is steep hills, and uneven pavement, also stairs to go down.

        I just want you to know what is like to be in my shoes.

        And no, I am not going to take a rip off taxi because taking a rip off taxi would make me dependent.

        I encourage you to read Chapter 121 of the Texas Human Resources Code. It’s just 9 pages, and get back to me.

        • Environmentally Reusable Bags come in all shapes and sizes. At some point, all the free bags in the world will do a shopper no good, because what they are buying becomes to big at some point (can’t put a new flat screen tv from best buy and fit it into a bag) .

          • A 15″ Flat Screen TV would fit. Maybe I don’t want a Flat Screen TV bigger than 15″

            I bought a 15″ Flat Screen once at either Sears or Target. and had it triple bagged with those bed and bath bags. I don’t shop at Best Buy as there prices are high, and there brand Insignia isn’t good.

            One of the reasons I shop at Sears, and Target is that they have those extra large bags. Why as a disabled person should I be limited to shop at Balcones Heights Target instead of all Targets?

            Environmentally Reusable bags do not come in all shapes and sizes. Take your bed and bath bags at Target that are made of plastic, do they make canvas bags in that size? No they don’t.

      • If your fighting plastic bags you wont win, solve the problem first on how it gets there. buy a garbage truck that doesnt spill everything all over the ground when it dumps trash. plastic bags is just one item made of plastic. Getting rid of plastic bags, wont make less soda bottles or ziplock bags

  10. How’d you get that big Screen TV home? Regardless. A quick view on Amazon tells us all that environmentally reusable bags DO come in all shapes and sizes. Why do you hate the environment? Maybe that’s worth exploring. // this idea that folks who bring their bags get 5 cents is a bad idea.. The better idea is to charge folks 5 cents a bag for not bringing their bags. // BTW. I’ll say it again. A disabled person is not limited by this bag issue in anyway. If someone can carry a free plastic bag that pollutes out of a store full of stuff they bought… Then that same person can carry an empty bag into the store.

    • How’d you get that big Screen TV home?

      I just told you, I have it tripled bagged. I was able to carry it on one arm. It’s not like a CRT set. Oh by the way, the TV I told you about died, I still have it stored in a closet.

      Amazon tells us all that environmentally reusable bags DO come in all shapes and sizes. Amazon is wrong. Just as wrong as Solyndra.

      Why do you hate the environment? I don’t hate the environment. Why do you think I put a link up to companies that do recycle plastic bags?

      Why do you hate the disabled?

      this idea that folks who bring their bags get 5 cents is a bad idea.

      I didn’t say 5 cents. I said 25 cents with exemptions that won’t hurt small businesses.

      BTW. I’ll say it again. A disabled person is not limited by this bag issue in anyway

      First of all I am limited by the bag issue, and now it is before the Travis County Courts. You don’t want to admit that you are wrong and I am right. Do you work for Battleground Texas?

      . If someone can carry a free plastic bag that pollutes out of a store full of stuff they bought… Then that same person can carry an empty bag into the store.

      Carry an empty bag into the store? What about persons with Alzheimers and TBI’s? You are supporting taking away their independence and that is wrong.

      Not all San Antonio residents have or want the luxury of the internet. There is a digital divide in San Antonio. My grandfather didn’t have the internet, he did everything the old fashion way. Are you telling folks sorry you going to have to get it online? or Go take a cab, pay an additional fare , and be dependent on someone else solely because you have limitations. Sorry bro, but Jim Crow died in the 60’s.

      I will update you on my lawsuit against the City of Austin.
      BTW, this suit is not my first ball game with the courts. I won 2 out 3 lawsuits that I filed in 5 years, and 2 where in Federal Court. I say my record as a good as Abbott’s in the litigation department. I flex my rights.

      • Nope. I’m not telling anyone to do or don’t do anything. I am telling my government I support them removing plastic bags as an option from stores. // Bringing an empty bag to the store is just as easy (if not more cause – it’s empty) as bringing a full bag from the store. Whatever the mode of transportation to/from the store // That little free plastic bag, that pollutes our water and land, that costs us money in taxes to pick up, that s an eye sore stuck in a tree, that will sit in our landfill for generations – it doesn’t give any more or less independence than the one someone can and should bring from home to begin with. //

        • I am telling my government I support them removing plastic bags as an option from stores.

          Would you be telling our government to remove people who are peacefully protesting on the sidewalk with picket signs exercising their first amendment rights? Are you okay with that also?

          Taking away liberty equals tyranny. Tyranny runs rampant in Communist countries, the government dictates how much everyone is paid, how much groceries they decide to buy, what to print in the media, what church to go to, or not, so on and so forth.

          Whatever the mode of transportation to/from the store // That little free plastic bag, that pollutes our water and land, that costs us money in taxes to pick up.

          Newspapers, produce bags, cans, bottles, Styrofoam cups do as well. Should we ban those.

          What we need is people who will clean up the mess, we have Bexar County Juvenile Justice Center filled with people on probation, and doing community service. I know we can put that to use. Commit a crime in Bexar County, and be sentenced to community service, instead of letting them watch TV in their cells, let them pick up the litter. It’s not cruel or unusual. It’s teaching them to pick up after themselves and contribute to society.

          Nelson Wolff is too busy thinking about streetcars to change that. That’s why we need Carlton Soules in charge!

          I am afraid that until you are in my shoes, you will never know how difficult it is to live with a bag ban.

          Just so you know, those floating bags are usually a result of garbage pickup not done properly.

          If you witness bags falling out of a garbage truck in the city, let me know so I can go down there and video tape it! I like to hold city officials accountable at all levels.

          If you see someone litter, call 311 and file a complaint. We pay for 311. But banning plastic bags hurts the disabled community, and I am living proof of that.

  11. Right on, Cris!

    And to some of the naysayers, the idea that persons with disabilities need a disposable plastic bag rather than a reusable one is ludicrous. I used to work for a nonprofit that served the disability community, and calling this a violation of ADA is a total joke. Besides, I’d rather see someone have groceries in a sturdier reusable bag than have the single-use plastic bag fail, and have spaghetti sauce and broken glass end up everywhere (who hasn’t had this happen to them?)

    Sure, having lived in another city with the ban, it took getting used to. But, moving to San Antonio, where many retailers over-bag your goods, I look forward to seeing them go.

    • I’m not even disabled, and hearing you people telling a disabled person what he can or cant do is absolutely ridiculous. Imagine you can barely carry any bag, yet alone one with handles. now you need to walk to your nearest store carrying empty bags cause your disability cant pay for your transportation cause your medicine cost more then disability gives you. count how many plastic bags you see the next few days driving around, count all the trash. now think of all the trash flying from trash trucks, pickup trucks, and now think how many times have you seen a disabled person throwing a plastic bag on the ground. and how many times you have seen a person do it plastic bags is only 1% of all the plastic tossed out every year

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