Brownsville Debates the Merits of Plastic Bag Ban

At stores in Brownsville, customers must pay $1 for plastic bags — so many bring their own, or go without. The policy, which also restricts paper bags, has removed hundreds of thousands of bags daily — but not without controversy.

Brownsville resident Rosie Orozco bags her own groceries in a reusable bag after shopping at an A.V. Lopez grocery store. Orozco says she always carries reusable bags in her car.

BROWNSVILLE — While buying groceries at the A&V Lopez supermarket this week, Rosie Orozco also spent 79 cents on something to put them in: a reusable bag emblazoned “Keep Texas Green.”

“I have a whole bunch of these in my truck,” she said, noting that she often forgets to take them in when she shops.

Orozco’s collection of tote bags stems from a recent ordinance in Brownsville, one of Texas' poorest big cities: a ban on plastic checkout bags in virtually all businesses. The policy, which took effect in January, has eliminated more than 350,000 bags per day, according to Mayor Pat Ahumada, who said in an email that it has “transformed our city from littered and dirty to a much cleaner city.”

Two other Texas communities, Fort Stockton and South Padre Island, have also approved bans on plastic bags, which will take effect in September and January, respectively. Several large cities, including Laredo, Austin and El Paso, have previously considered bans, and even the small town of Poteet, south of San Antonio, plans to assess its bag-banning options.

Brownsville’s policy, the first of its kind in Texas, has stirred controversy. While Orozco said she liked reusable bags because they helped the environment, others have concerns.

Edmundo Arizpe, 84, who left the A&V Lopez store clutching two small bags of peanuts, said that when he needed to buy lots of groceries, he often went to the nearby city of San Benito.

By driving, “I’m doing worse to the climate,” Arizpe said. He wishes the ban exempted customers spending more than $50.

The ordinance also worries Duro Bag, a large maker of paper bags with a factory in the city’s port, because, unlike bans elsewhere in the nation, it also restricts paper bags, said Christopher Klein, manager of strategic initiatives at the company.

Paper bags at many Brownsville checkout counters must be extra sturdy and have handles, which Klein calls “somewhat counterintuitive to reducing trash and litter.” (The requirement is intended to make paper bags reusable.) Duro Bag’s Brownsville factory does not make this kind of bag, but it plans to add equipment so it can; currently Duro Bag ships bags with handles in from another plant for distribution in Brownsville.

Legislation being considered by state lawmakers would encourage shoppers to recycle plastic bags by requiring large retailers like Walmart to place bag recycling bins prominently in their stores. It would also preempt local ordinances, however, and that worries advocates of bag bans who fear that it could derail local policies already in existence or under consideration.

State Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who sponsored the Senate legislation, said that his bill was “not moving” right now, but that a House version had made more progress. Fraser said he did not intend to overturn policies of cities with existing bans. In the long run, he said, “we would like to wean people off the using of not only plastic but paper” and shift Texans toward reusable bags.

Walmart has backed Fraser’s legislation, which it sees as more workable than all-out bans.

“Walmart is committed to reducing its plastic bag waste, but we would rather see voluntary programs to reduce plastic bag use” instead of stricter policies like Brownsville’s, said Daniel Morales, a company spokesman in Texas.

Ronnie Volkening, the president of the Texas Retailers Association, which also backs Fraser's bill, said that a number of big retailers had participated in an 18-month experiment in Austin to encourage customers to bring in their bags for recycling, and the effort had also succeeded in getting customers to cut their plastic bag use by 20 percent. A similar project is due to launch in San Antonio in the coming months, he said. But Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, which opposes Fraser's bill because it could preempt local policies to ban bags, said that the Austin program fell far short of its original goal, and that such voluntary programs are "just diversionary tactics to stop local governments from taking more effective action."

In Brownsville, the bag ban's effect is obvious at one Walmart, where customers could be seen carrying bottles of juice or even prewrapped lettuce to their cars — without a bag. Walmart shoppers can still get plastic bags for $1, which is the standard fee established by the ordinance and which goes into a fund to clean up the city. (At Walmart, $1 buys double-bagging.) Others opt to buy reusable blue bags for 25 cents, or take bags in with them.

Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville, which pushed for the ban, said tourists had called plastic bags “Texas wildflowers.”

In South Padre Island, the Surfrider Foundation strongly endorses the town’s ban, partly because plastic bags besmirch the dunes and harm seabirds and sea turtles.

“Using reusable bags is good,” said Rob Nixon, chairman of the group’s South Texas chapter. “They’re not only great shopping bags; they’re great beach bags as well.”

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