Austin officials announced Tuesday that they will stop enforcing the city’s ban on disposable bags, but environmentalists — aware that such a decision was likely — already have started asking businesses to remain free of single-use bags.
The city’s decision came one day after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a vocal opponent of bag bans, sent letters reminding Austin, Sunset Valley and nine other cities with anti-bag ordinances that the Texas Supreme Court struck down a similar ban in Laredo as a violation of state law.
“Your ordinance is now unenforceable,” the letter says.
City spokesman Andy Tate said the ban will no longer be enforced as a result of the ruling.
“While it’s disappointing that the city is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste,” he said. “Meanwhile the city of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reusable bags with them every time they shop.”
Tate said the city had not needed to enforce the ban to reduce the numbers of single-use bags.
“We’ve seen a huge change, and we’re proud of what our community has done to help keep Austin beautiful, the environment safe and our storm drains clear,” he said.
Even before the decision, environmental groups already had begun shifting strategy, acknowledging that there is little prospect for action on the state level with Republican lawmakers and a governor who are hostile to the local bag bans and who were prepared to try to pare them back had the state Supreme Court not done so.
Instead of pushing for local governments to ban bags, they are stepping up an old-fashioned campaign of asking businesses to keep themselves free of single-use bags.
Within hours of the court’s ruling in late June, Texas Campaign for the Environment launched a petition and fundraising effort.
“This is an outrage for our environment and for our freedom, but we are not giving up! We need you to take action to fight back right now,” the email appeal said. “Retailers are not required to put bags out just because of this decision, and folks in Austin have adapted easily to the bag ordinance there — it has had real benefits for the environment.”
The email included ways for people to put pressure on major retailers — Walmart, Randalls, H-E-B and Target — through social media.
Some of the stores said Tuesday — before the Austin announcement — that they were considering what to do next.
“Randalls will be considering a future course of action with insight from our customers,” spokeswoman Dawne Proffitt said. The company provides “ordinance compliant multi-use plastic bags” made from recycled materials for 10 cents apiece, along with an assortment of reusable shopping bags for sale.
H-E-B spokeswoman Leslie Sweet said that “as with any policy change to our business, we will thoughtfully evaluate the issue to ensure we’re making the best decisions for our customers and the communities we serve. There will be no immediate changes as we learn more about the ruling.”
Currently, H-E-B customers can purchase reusable bags at 25 cents apiece.
“We have not altered our plan since the ruling,” she said.
Walmart and Target did not respond to requests for comment.
Rick Cofer, who had headed the Austin Ban the Bags Coalition, said, “The burden is now on activists in the community to make the case that businesses should choose to go bagless.”
He said beyond remaking the original environmental arguments — especially that bags choke turtles and other creatures, including livestock; and that they get caught in trees, waterways and fences, making communities uglier — environmental groups will have to make an economic appeal.
The Austin bag ban, in place since 2013, gave cover to retailers to turn an economic loss into a gain, he said.
“Before, they had to buy single-use plastic bags to distribute,” he said. “They would buy them for two-tenths of a penny or whatever it was and give them away for free. Now (with the bag ban in place) they could say, ‘Golly, we would love to give you one, but the city says we can’t so we’ll sell you one for 25 cents.’”
Finally, he said, activists will have to make a community appeal: “They have to tell businesses, ‘This is where your consumers are at. Maybe in other markets your customers don’t share our broad consensus in prioritizing environmental business — but they do here.’”
Asked if having to buy bags could hurt low-income shoppers, Cofer said: “I’m sensitive to unintended consequences for impoverished folks or folks with more limited income — but it’s still a matter of environmental choice. For generations before plastic bags, people got food from where they bought it to their house.”
George Kelemen, president and CEO of the Texas Retailers Association, which has fought against bag bans and which includes major Austin retailers as members, said he thinks the emphasis should be on recycling plastic bags. (Environmental activists say bag recycling efforts have been largely unsuccessful.)
“Our industry wants to be good stewards,” Kelemen said.