Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Plastic Bags in Texas, a Tale of Two Cities

The opening words of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities are well known: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …”  But the sentence continues, “… it was the age of wisdom, it was

the age of foolishness, …” Times haven’t changed all that much.

Georgetown and Austin in the great state of Texas are separated by about 30 miles of Interstate highway. In Texas that’s close, but it also appears to be the distance between wisdom and foolishness, at least when it comes to polyethylene shopping bags.

In tune with the current fad, the city government of Austin, the Texas state capitol, decided to ban plastic bags. Starting March 1, 2013, large stores can no longer hand out single-use shopping bags. (For the record, since plastic bags are easily recycled, “single-use” is inaccurate.) After running a pilot program, Austin’s leaders declared that it wasn’t feasible to recycle plastic bags, and they created the upcoming bag ban.

By contrast, in May 2011 the city of Georgetown surveyed its residents and learned that citizens wanted to recycle more items curbside, including plastic bags. Town leaders took the message seriously. Georgetown’s single-stream recycling program began operating this past October.

The Georgetown solution for handling plastics bags is simple. Every month, residents can

take two yellow plastic bags called Stuffers that are larger and stronger than regular shopping bags. They use them to collect their shopping bags and then put the Stuffers in the curbside recycling bin.

The Stuffers are made to survive the compactor at the Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) Creedmoor facility, about 15 miles south of Austin, and their bright yellow color lets workers easily separate them from other incoming material. Besides shopping bags, most other types of plastic film can be put in the Stuffers. TDS, which operates landfill, recycling, and composting facilities, worked with Georgetown to create the single stream system.

Have you decided which solution is wise and which is foolish? The most elegant solutions are marked by simplicity. Doing what your customers ask for is simple common sense, and in this case it’s also a mark of responsive government.

Plastic bags make up about 0.5% of solid waste. Banning them will not solve the problem of litter in the environment. Recycling, on the other hand, has the potential to completely solve that problem, by creating a closed loop that keeps bags, and all recyclable materials away from the environment.

This brief clip from Austin-based KXAN News shows wisdom in action.

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