A bag ban in Austin, Texas, has resulted in the reduction of the use of single-use bags, but also led to complications with an increasing number of thicker plastic bags getting into the city's recycling stream.
The ban will reduce consumption by an estimated 197 million single-use bags per year.
“Across the board, there was a significant reduction in the amount of single-use plastic bags received by the citizens of Austin,” Waters wrote in his report. “From the perspective of judging whether the ordinance was successful in its task, the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ However, if all other aspects of this issue are considered, the answer becomes less clear.”
The study consisted of a comparative litter analysis between Austin and Fort Worth — based on 2009 baseline data and recent litter clean-up events in both cities — and a comparative recycling stream analysis between Austin and an anonymous Central Texas community.
Neither Fort Worth nor the unnamed community have single-use bag ordinances.
Waters reported that Austin has 75 percent fewer single-use plastic bags in its litter stream than Fort Worth — which has a population that he considered comparable — and 15 times fewer single-use plastic bags in its recycling stream than the unnamed community.
Waters compared this audit to one that Texas Disposal Systems conducted of an unnamed Central Texas community. He found that single-use plastic bags made up 85 percent of total plastic bags in that community, compared to 6 percent in Austin, while reusable plastic bags made up 15 percent of plastic bags in that community, compared to 94 percent in Austin.
Although, according to Waters, Austin had about five times fewer individual plastic bags of all types per pound of recycling, Austin’s higher concentration of heavier reusable bags made the weight comparison less impressive. He reported that plastic bags, by weight, made up .054 percent of Austin’s recycling, compared to .071 percent in the unnamed community.
Reusable bags — like single-use bags — cannot be recycled through the city’s regular recycling programs and must go to special facilities. Resource Recovery considers them contaminants when they enter the recycling stream because they often get caught in the machinery at materials recovery facilities, which increases costs to the city.
Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert said that reusable bags should be able to withstand 100 uses, but he believes that if consumers use them between six and eight times before discarding them, they will have offset the bags’ carbon footprint. “I think the lesson learned from this study is that we need to promote reuse,” he said.