Paper or plastic? – Bag bans are in danger with pending Texas legislation

Paper or plastic? This is a question that, for some Texans, is still asked at the grocery store. For others, like those living in Austin, this is not an option anymore, because single-use plastic bags are banned. However, this could soon change– not just for Austin, but for all of Texas.

A plastic bag ban battle is currently underway at the Texas Capitol as the 85th Texas Legislature is coming to an end. Two bills, Senate Bill 103 and House Bill 3482, could determine the fate of plastic bag ordinances at the local and state level. Also, the larger battle at hand: should the local or state government have the authority to ban certain types of bags?



“Despite common misconceptions, plastic bags are actually the most environmentally friendly option for transporting groceries,” said State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Rockwall, author of S.B. 103. This bill is a move to overturn local government plastic bag bans in Texas.

In his bill analysis, Hall said his bill would allow Texas businesses to freely provide customers with bags of any material, without penalty. “Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and studies show that banning plastic bags forces consumers to use resource-heavy alternatives, such as paper and reusable bags. Recent studies demonstrate that taxes and bans on plastic bags have not prevented litter or kept plastic waste out of landfills,” Hall said.

Hall said S.B. 103 would not limit the authority of local government, except when enacting a ban, restriction or fee on the use of bags provided at the point of sale. S.B. 103 was filed on November 14, 2016 and is currently pending in the Business and Commerce committee. If passed, the law would go into effect on September 1, 2017.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that Hall tried a similar measure during the 2015 Texas Legislative Session but the bills did not gain traction, perhaps because they were filed in March, which is relatively late and close to the deadline for filing bills. The two bag-related bills were S.B. 1806 and S.B. 1550– neither made it out of the Senate committee.

Some advocates for ending plastic bag bans, such as Bag The Ban, say single-use plastic bags are environmentally-friendly and bag bans and taxes hurt the community and reduce jobs.



H.B. 3482, filed by Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, seeks to fight opponents of bag regulations and bans.

“Bag ban policies have been shown to reduce pollution, save businesses like recycling facilities and protect crops from contamination,” Hinojosa said at her bill’s hearing (1:42-1:57)  on April 25. “There are compelling reasons for specific communities to pass single-use plastic ban ordinances.”

Hinojosa said the purpose behind H.B. 3482 is to serve as clarifying language for the existing Solid Waste Disposal Act to specify that containers and packages do not include single-use plastic bags. She said the original purpose of the act was focused on landfill capacity and the containers in question were styrofoam and packaging connected to manufacturing and shipping, not plastic bags.

At the hearing for H.B. 3482 on April 25, 11-year-old Kalen Crouthouse from Houston took the stand to share why she was in favor of this environmentally-conscious bill.

“I live near the bayou and I always played in it,” Crouthouse said. “There’s a beautiful park near its banks. This park is the core of our neighborhood and also happens to be the second oldest park in Houston. There are birthday parties and community gatherings at the park. It’s such a beautiful place. There’s a lot of wildlife– turtles, schools of fish, heron.”

“But,” the Travis Elementary 5th grader said, “It’s full of plastic waste… mostly plastic bags. Hundreds and hundreds of plastic bags are strewn in the trees. It looks awful. Instead of being a place that attracts people, it’s full of trash which gives our bayous a bad reputation.

Crouthouse said she is a Girl Scout and her troop routinely cleans up the park, but each time they return there are more plastic bags and litter.

“We were devastated that our bayou that could be teething with wildlife was instead choking with plastic bags,” Crouthouse told Texas lawmakers.

Gilbert Sines, a school board member in the city of Freer and a sheep rancher, also testified in favor of the bill. Sines hometown of Freer is one of ten Texas cities that currently have plastic bag bans or regulations.

“Ranching is a long tradition in Texas,” Sines said. “Ranchera have made Texas what it is today, the great state. However, I’ve seen my sheep eating plastic. My neighbors have found several dead, bloated cattle. After performing an autopsy, plastic bags were found in the first stomach of a dead cow. These cows die painful and gruesome deaths, their stomachs expanding so much they can’t breathe and they suffocate.”

Sines said plastic bags fly freely and often deceive livestock as food.

“It’s a business,” Sines said. “As a rancher, you spend time, effort and money on your cattle… We all love eating a big juicy steak, but we wouldn’t want to think about eating that steak with plastic in it.”

While the young Crouthouse is fighting for the possibility of a plastic bag ban in her hometown of Houston, Sines is fighting to keep a plastic bag ban in Freer, a small Texas town in South Texas.

After the testimony was taken, H.B. 3482 was voted out of the Urban Affairs committee with a vote of 4-3. This bill, filed March 8, 2017, is currently waiting to be voted on by the House. If passed, the law would also take effect September 1, 2017.

In her closing remarks at the hearing, bill author Hinojosa said she is originally from Brownsville, where plastic bag bans began.



There are currently ten Texas cities with plastic bag ordinances– Fort Stockton, South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, Austin, Freer, Sunset Valley, Kermit, Laredo, Eagle Pass and Brownsville.

In Austin, an ordinance (15-6-121 and 15-6-122) was implemented March 1, 2013. The ordinance states that businesses must provide carry out bags for customers, made of cloth, washable fabric, recyclable plastic with a minimum thickness of four millimeters or recyclable paper and banned single-use plastic bags. Some of exemptions (15-6-123) to this Austin plastic bag ban include laundry dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, garbage bags, plastic bags wrapped in meat etc. The ordinance permits businesses to charge customers for reusable bags. Many grocery stores in Austin, like Target, Wal-Mart and H.E.B, charge 10 to 25 cents for a reusable plastic or paper bag.

Brownsville was the first city in Texas to begin looking into plastic bag regulations, but it wasn’t until April 1, 2017 that a city-wide plastic bag ban was implemented.

Edward Camarillo, former city commissioner of Brownsville, said healthy communities of Brownsville wanted the city to be clean and vibrant so they came together to create a change.

“All of the major playmakers of the city, including H.E.B., local gas stations and Wal-Mart, came together to figure out how there could be a plastic bag ban without it affecting the city in a negative way,” Camarillo said.

Camarillo said some of the city initiatives to change behaviors and help the environment included allowing shoppers to swap a plastic bag for a reusable bag and giving away a number of free reusable bags to get the change started. He said the city also posted flyers, showed infomercials, used bus graphics, social media and did presentations to make sure the public was ready for a plastic bag ban and understood how the ban could make Brownsville cleaner.

In 2011, Brownsville incorporated a $1 fee per transaction when plastic bags were used during checkout. Camarillo said this was another measure to get people to change their habits and think twice about using plastic bags.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city of Brownsville over this $1 fee, saying it was an illegal sales tax. In January of 2017 the bag fee was removed, in exchange for Paxton dropping the lawsuit. The city of Dallas also had a similar 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags in 2015, but this was rescinded by the city council after a lawsuit was filed by bag manufacturers, the Statesman reports.

“I’ve lived in Brownsville for 30 years, my entire life,” Camarillo said. “We want our kids and grandkids to live in a clean environment. I want to see a clean and beautiful community.”

In regards to the related legislation in this session, Camarillo said the state of Texas should not have the authority to tell communities what to do.

“[S.B. 103] would have a negative effect on all communities in Texas,” he said. “Across the state, there are various projects in each community to beautify Texas and make it more green. Every community should be allowed to place laws that will positively affect the environment.”

Camarillo said although he is no longer the city commissioner of Brownsville nor active in the government, he is a regular citizen who continues to advocate for the environment.

John Porter with the Laredo Environmental Services Department, another Texas city with a plastic bag ban ordinance, said the city has been much cleaner since the ban was implemented two years ago.

“A lot if problems associated with bags would come back if [S.B. 103] happens and there would be large sums of money needed to clean up the bags,” Porter said. “The legislature in Austin doesn’t know what’s best for the city of Laredo or for any other city.”

(Photo: Tracey D. King, City of Laredo Program Coordinator)

The Texas legislative session ends May 29. According to KUT, about 20-22 percent of bills filed during the Texas legislative session are passed into law. KUT reports that 6,200 bills were filed during the 2015 legislative session and only 1,300 were passed.

What happens at the Texas Capitol over the new couple of weeks could determine whether or not your grocery store cashier asks, “Paper or plastic”, or “Would you like to buy a reusable bag?”.



This article was written during the Spring 2017 semester for “Environmental Reporting” at The University of Texas at Austin.

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