Surviving the Austin Bag Ban

February 27th, 2013

Last summer, I visited Paris.  While there, I took a stroll down the Champs-Elysees and stopped by the Disney Store to pick up French Mickey and Minnie items to bring home to younger relatives as gifts.

I purchased several cute outfits, a couple of stuffed Mickeys wearing berets, and a coffee mug with Mickey and the French flag (I can’t lie—the last item was for me).

At the checkout counter, I survived navigating the transaction in my broken French only to get stumped at the end.

After receiving my change, I stood there waiting for the woman behind the counter to put my items in a bag.  She looked at me.  I looked at her.  Then, she asked me something in French a couple of times I couldn’t quite understand.  After clueing in that I had no idea what she was saying, she asked me in English.

“Would you like a bag for these items?”

“Sure,” I replied, although I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why she was asking.  I mean who in their right mind would walk down the Champs-Elysees carrying clothes, stuffed toys, and a coffee mug in their arms?


She grabbed a cute Minnie Mouse reusable bag, placed my purchases inside, and charged me an additional two euros.

Welcome to France.

And welcome home.

Beginning March 1st, my hometown of Austin, Texas, will implement a bag ban policy.  Stores in the city will no longer be able to provide one time use plastic bags of a specific thickness or paper bags that aren’t reusable. If you forget your reusable bag when you arrive at the store and you don’t feel comfortable carrying all your groceries in your arms when you leave, you can always purchase these bags for about a dollar a piece.

The bag ban idea is noble and well intentioned.  According to city leaders, the goal is to reduce the number of plastic bags littering Austin roads.  Good intentions, however, don’t always lead to smart policies.  The only road I’ve ever read about paved with good intentions leads to . . . well . . . you know where.

I practiced environmental law for many years, so I think I know just a bit about the environment and the laws meant to protect it.  The two don’t always work well together.

For example, a few years ago compact fluorescent light bulbs became all the rage.  They’re the bulbs with the swirling design.  While they are energy efficient (good for the environment), they have two notable defects.  First, flaws in manufacturing can cause them to emit excessive amounts of UV light.  For your energy bill, that’s not a problem.  For your health, it is. Also, they contain mercury.  That means that when you’re finished with your bulb, you can’t just dump it in the trashcan.  You must properly dispose of it as a hazardous waste. If you don’t and all your neighbors are equally careless, landfills across the country could become hazardous waste sites since mercury leaching into the groundwater is really a bad thing.

Plastic bags present different issues.

For starters, the reusable bags are nice, but they need to be cleaned after each use.  One study notes an increase in cases of E Coli contamination in communities using these bags almost exclusively.  Granted, supporters of the bag ban claim this study is biased, but on its face, it makes sense.  No matter what, you’re just taking your chances if you keep using these bags without cleaning them.  Let’s be honest.  I’ve visited a few homes where cleaning isn’t a huge priority.  Somehow I doubt reusable bags are going to be the exception.

There is also the cost.  Stores report that they’ll need to increase costs or pass the costs of acceptable bags on to the consumer.  With the economy currently in the dumps and food and gas prices growing, the average shopper isn’t going to be thrilled with the prospect that forgetting to bring reusable bags will mean an increase in their grocery bill.

Finally, there are costs to the retailers.  I’ve been reading recently about the negative impact on local small businesses that operate on very thin margins already. But larger retailers have issues as well.  My niece works for a large clothing store in a shopping mall.  She and her fellow associates have evidently been talking about the bag ban in the context of an increase in store thefts.

From what she tells me, they are always on the lookout for shoppers with big bags because many shoplifters use a ploy where one person distracts the associate while the thief slides the stolen merchandise into the bag.

“Now everyone will be carrying those bags around the mall,” she told me, “We won’t really know who to look out for anymore.”

In some ways, the Austin bag ban is already in effect.  For years, I’ve noticed the propensity of shoppers who forget to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store spending a good five minutes of the transaction explaining to the employee checking them out why they forgot their reusable bags.  It’s as if they’re in a confessional.

I’ve also learned that if an employee asks you if you want a bag at the end of a transaction, the socially acceptable answer is “no.”  Otherwise, you’re subjected to a reliable sigh or disapproving glance.  Hollering “stick ‘em up” would be better received. On rare occasions when I’ve felt I had no choice but to take a bag, I’ve offered my own long-winded explanation for my faux pas.  I just couldn’t walk out of the store thinking that the tattooed woman with the green hair behind the counter thinks I’m a jerk.

I don’t know how this whole bag ban thing is going to go, but I think I’ll just try to avoid any possible stress associated with the ban altogether.

I’ll get groceries in the suburbs and shop online.

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