AUSTIN (KXAN) - It is one of the broadest and boldest bag bans in the nation. Come March of next year, Austinites will have to learn to carry something "reusable" from the stores -- in most cases. But those exemptions for single-use bags are piling up.
Every cent counts when it comes to business for Jaffer Umer. His MLK Food Store has to dig into its own pockets, bagging what people buy.
"Well, those plastic bags, it's $14 a box and has a thousand in there," Umer said.
The city's upcoming ban – for most plastic and paper bags -- will save him money, but he also worries it might drive customers away at first. He wants a few more months to get them up to speed -- an exemption to the rule.
"It's not a big company or something," said Umer. "It's a retail market. Every single person needs to know it will take time."
There are many exemptions, if you can prove you qualify. Umer's shop might not, but businesses unable to make the switch right away would. So do restaurants, pharmacies, flower shops, butchers -- places that can't get around the rule because of what customers carry out (see below for a list of the rules).
"We'll probably be back around on this in a few years to make sure we get it right," said Andrew Dobbs of Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Some environmental groups like TCE are excited about Austin going even more green, but have some concerns about all of these exemptions. They might not be part of the intent of the city's ordinance. But Dobbs' group sees it as a step in the right direction with room for improvement.
"The easiest solution for them is just to be in compliance with the ordinance," he said. "It's going to save them money, taxpayers' money."
Some shops – like Take Heart – are ready for the switch, knowing they likely do not qualify for the exemptions.
"We will forget about the days when we had plastic bags, as we forget about the days when we didn't have a cellphone," said owner Nina Gordon. "It will just become part of life as we know it."
Gordon's place already has reusable bags and is going a step further, selling bigger bags for customers to use any time and anywhere they shop.
"They actually hold up to 50 pounds, so they're awesome for the grocery store," she said.
The city says each exemption will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and there will be very few approvals.
The single-use bag ban goes into effect March 1, so get your reusable bags now. Many places give them for free. Others let you buy them, and most are inexpensive.
This City of Austin answered KXAN's questions about the single-use bag ban below:
General Rules of the Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance
Reusable carry-out bags must meet the following criteria:
10.1.1 Plastic Bags: If made of plastic, be made of a minimum thickness of 4.0 mil;
10.1.2 Paper Bags: If made of paper, must contain a minimum of 40% recycled content beginning March 1, 2013, and contain a minimum 80% recycled content by March 1, 2014.
10.1.3 All reusable carry-out bags, whether plastic, paper, cloth or other fabric, must have consumer carrying handles.
10.1.4 Handles are not required for reusable paper carry-out bags with a height of less than 14 inches and width of less than 8 inches.
Restaurant and pharmaceutical bags, however, are two of several exceptions to the ordinance. See below for more detail.
Q: What are the rules on bags for restaurants? I guess what I heard was that Whataburger was happy. But how does the ordinance apply to them and McDonalds and such? If I got thru a drive thru, what can I expect?
A: 10.7.3: Restaurant Bags, limited to recyclable paper bags used to take away prepared food. Single use plastic carryout bags allowed only where necessary to prevent moisture damage; examples include soups, sauces salads with dressing, and liquids.
Summary: Restaurants/fast food establishments/etc. will still be providing bags for takeaway food, but they must be made of paper unless they are bags for soups, sauces, salads or liquids. In these instances, plastic carryout bags will be allowed.
Q: If I go into Walgreens, what can I expect?
A: 10.7.2: Pharmaceutical Bags and Veterinarian Bags, limited topaper bags provided by pharmacists or veterinarians to contain prescription drugs or other medical necessities.
Summary: Pharmaceutical bags will still be available, but must be made out of paper.
10.7.1: Laundry, Newspaper and Waste Bags,such as laundry dry cleaning bags, door-hangar bags, newspaper bags, or packages of multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pet waste, or yard waste.
10.7.4: Non-Checkout Bags,such as bags used by a customer inside a Business Establishment to:
- 10.7.4.1 Contain bulk items, such as produce, nuts, grains, candy, or small hardware items;
- 10.7.4.2 Contain or wrap frozen foods, meat, or fish, whether or not prepackaged;
- 10.7.4.3 Contain or wrap flowers, potted plants or other items
- to prevent moisture damage to other purchases; or
10.7.5: Charity Non-Profits,such as bags used by a non-profit corporation or other hunger relief charity to distribute food, grocery products, clothing, or other household items.
Note: This ordinance is nota ban on all bags. It simply regulates the types of bags that can be distributed within the Austin city limits. There will still be a choice at checkout.
Q: What type of business do you think would qualify for the exemption? Which ones would not be able to meet the standards of the ordinance?
A: There are three types of requests that businesses can make:
- Request for Hardship (not to exceed 6 months) – this temporary request is for businesses who cannot comply with the ordinance due to physical constraints. Examples might be that the business needs to reconstruct their counters or checkout areas. This request would be accompanied by a plan from the business to comply with the ordinance within 6 months.
- Alternative Compliance – Businesses, who want to meet the intent of the ordinance in an innovative way, using bags of a different design than is required by the ordinance, may apply for Alternative Compliance. Businesses requesting approval for alternative compliance will submit the technical specifications of their bags along with a manufacturer's or distributor's certification that the bags meet the 100 reuse standard. Approved bags will be reevaluated every 3 years.
- Emergency Access - Businesses can provide Austin Resource Recovery a plan for providing Emergency Access to bags for persons unable or unwilling to receive a complaint bag. Since paper bags with handles, made with 80% recycled content are compliant, staff does not expect this to be a significant barrier for compliance.
We don't anticipate businesses to have difficulty meeting the standards of the ordinance and the City will do its best to reach out to businesses in the community who need assistance becoming compliant and supply them with the education necessary to successfully make the transition. Businesses that request an exemption will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Q: What are examples of alternative materials not mentioned in the ordinance but still meet the city's standards of reusability? There is an exemption for this, too?
A: The purpose of the Alternative Compliance is to ensure that the ordinance does not stifle innovation and good ideas. If a business or manufacturer develops a new design, manufacturing process, or a bag using a different type of material, the bag will considered by staff and will be approved by the Director if it meets the minimum reuse testing standard of 100 reuses carrying 16 pounds and meets the intent of the ordinance and our Zero Waste goal.
Q: What is the maximum amount of time this exemption can be in place?
A: Exemptions are in place until the City Council amends the ordinance to reflect changes in the industry.
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