Nearly a year after the Austin City Council passed one of the nation’s most far-reaching bans on the thin bags offered at retail checkout counters, and less than two weeks before the ban takes effect, a big ad campaign to educate customers about the law is just beginning.
The city is paying an Austin marketing firm $850,000 to create the campaign, including print, radio and TV ads that will start running Monday. The ban on so-called single-use paper and plastic bags begins 11 days later, on March 1.
Austin Resource Recovery, the city’s trash and recycling department,hoped to begin running the ads in early January, director Bob Gedert said. But a few factors caused delays, including having to work out some details of the ban after the City Council passed it last March, he said.
Two weeks will be enough time to get the message across, Gedert said. “It will be fresh in people’s minds,” he said.
The ban is meant to reduce the number of bags that end up at landfills or as roadside litter.
Retailers will still be allowed to offer thicker plastic and paper bags with handles, which the city considers reusable. Retailers will decide whether to charge for those bags.
Exempt from the ban will be dry-cleaning bags, newspaper delivery bags, some types of takeout food bags and bags used to hold fish, meat, poultry, produce, bulk goods and pharmaceuticals.
Other cities with bag bans say educating the public early and often was crucial to ensuring a smooth transition.
Brownsville spent about $150,000 on a marketing and outreach effort with the slogan “Bring Your Own Bag.” That city’s campaign included bus wraps, social media and print, radio and TV ads, Public Health Director Art Rodriguez said.
The campaign lasted a year, from January 2010 to January 2011, when Brownsville’s ban on single-use plastic and paper bags took effect, Rodriguez said.
“It made all the difference in the world,” he said. “We had saturated the market with outreach, so people came prepared” on the first day.
Rodriguez likened a much shorter campaign to a Hail Mary pass, the last-ditch play that rarely results in a touchdown. But he said, “If a campaign is well-funded, and you put everything into a few weeks and blast the airwaves, it could still work very well.”
In the months after the council approved the ban, Austin Resource Recovery spent $148,000 running print and radio ads created by city staffers and gave away 25,000 reusable bags. But the department always planned to hire a private marketing firm to do a bigger, more high-profile ad campaign, Gedert said.
It took until October to seek and review bids from marketing firms, choose one and ask the City Council to OK it, Gedert said. Austin Resource Recovery wanted to pay the Austin firm Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing $1 million in the ban’s first year and $750,000 in its second year. Concerned about the cost, council members approved $850,000 for one year only.
So Austin Resource Recovery had to renegotiate the Sherry Matthews Advocacy contract. It also had to iron out details of the ban, such as the required thickness for a bag to be defined as reusable.Those tasks weren’t finished until mid-December, pushing the start of the ad campaign from January to mid-February, Gedert said.
Gedert said Austin Resource Recovery hired a firm to create a campaign, instead of continuing its in-house efforts, to reach more of Austin’s 800,000 residents through TV ads that will air on most local stations, not just city-run Channel 6. Sherry Matthews Advocacy “has the expertise and the reach” for that work, he said.
The $850,000 comes from trash-related fees that Austinites pay on their utility bills.
Included in the cost is $330,000 for advertising, $225,000 for the design and production of ads and outreach materials, $90,000 for social media efforts and to create a website, and $60,000 on market research to test messages and measure the campaign’s success, Austin Resource Recovery spokeswoman Courtney Black said.
The ads that start Monday will run for seven weeks. The campaign, with the slogan “Bring it Austin,” is less about the ban and more about reminding Austinites to take their reusable bags to the store, Black said.
Sherry Matthews will also create and run more ads in late summer, possibly with a new message, depending on how customers are adjusting to the ban, Black said. The firm will also keep meeting with businesses and help give away reusable bags at community events throughout the year, Black said.
The city already held free training sessions for retailers in November and earlier this month, created training videos and printed materials for them, and mailed letters about the ban to 17,500 businesses. Stores are required to post signs no later than March 1, outside and inside, near checkout counters, alerting customers to the ban.
Retailers can seek the city’s permission to comply with the ban in a different way, for a limited period of time. Eighteen retailers, mostly small businesses, requested that; 11 were approved, one was denied and the rest are under review.
H-E-B got the city’s OK, for one year, to offer single-use paper or plastic bags for $1 per transaction as an “emergency option” to customers who forget to bring reusable bags, spokeswoman Leslie Sweet said.
H-E-B employees will promote the use of reusable bags first. And all revenue from the $1 emergency option will go toward H-E-B’s reusable bag giveaway program, Sweet said.
What might confuse customers most is the different ways retailers approach the ban.
For example, Wal-Mart plans to offer reusable bags, made of a woven fabric from recycled plastics, for 50 cents each, and paper bags with handles for 10 cents.
Walgreens will have three sizes of reusable paper bags, at no charge. It will offer other reusable bags for purchase.
Target will give away reusable bags on the ban’s first day. It will then offer several styles and sizes of reusable bags for purchase, spokeswoman Jessica Stevens said. Target will also offer paper bags with handles at no charge.
Target also already offers, and will continue to offer, a 5-cent rebate on each reusable bag customers bring with them.
In addition to the “emergency option,” H-E-B will offer several types of reusable bags for as little as 25 cents each, Sweet said. Only H-E-B’s Central Market locations will continue to provide, at no charge, the thicker paper bags with handles that they currently offer. H-E-B will also give away 700,000 reusable bags starting Saturday, Sweet said.
Randalls spokeswoman Connie Yates said that grocery chain is finalizing its plan and isn’t ready to share details.
Austin Resource Recovery hasn’t hired any new staff to enforce the ban, Black said. Enforcement will be driven by complaints from the public. If retailers violate the ban, the city will first work with them to help them comply, she said. In extreme cases, the city could cite violators for Class C misdemeanors (with fines of up to $2,000 a day) and take them to court.