Paper or Plastic? Both are Now Illegal in Austin, Texas

Heading to Texas any time soon? Be sure to bring your own bag.

March 10, 2012

This sight will soon be extinct in Austin, Texas.

Everything is bigger in Texas, so the saying goes. And that doesn't apply just to steers and Stetson hats. Late last week, the city council of Austin, the state's capitol, passed one of the most comprehensive bans on disposable shopping bags in the country. Starting in March 2013, all retailers will be forced to do away with thin, single-use shopping bags—whether paper or plastic.


You Pay $88 a Year for "Free" Plastic Bags

Texas isn't exactly recognized for its environmental sustainability. The state's economy runs off the oil and natural gas pumped from beneath politicians' feet, and Houston has one of the worst asthma rates in the country, attributed to the city's not-so-great air quality. But Rick Cofer, vice chairman of Austin's Zero Waste Advisory Commission, who has pushed for a ban for five years, told the Austin-American Statesman, "This is about Austin reclaiming its position as the national leader in environmental protection. This ordinance is forward-looking. It may have taken a few years, but we got it right."

A dozen cities have already passed bag bans that target plastic bags, eliminating those in favor of paper bags for which customers are charged a small fee, usually 5 to 10 cents per bag. But thus far, no other city has successfully implemented a ban as comprehensive as Austin's. In most cases, the plastic-bag industry lobbies hard to reverse or stop bans, as it did in Texas. But those efforts didn't seem to pay off in Austin. The ban passed with a unanimous vote.

In the year between now and when the single-use bag ban goes into effect, the city plans to launch an educational campaign encouraging people to get into the habit of bringing and using reusable bags. When the ban begins, retailers will be penalized (an amount yet to be determined) for handing out flimsy, thin plastic or paper bags.

8 Ways to Reuse Plastic Bags

Although it seems dire, there are exceptions to this. Stronger, more durable—and technically reusable—plastic and paper shopping bags "with handles" will be permitted, the ordinance notes, and stores will have the ability to charge for those, since they generally cost more to make. Likewise, the city council is considering an "emergency option" that would allow people who forget their reusable bags to pay a per-bag fee so they don't have to buy another reusable bag. There are a few other exceptions to the rule: allowing charities to use plastic shopping bags to distribute food and other necessities, for instance, and letting restaurants use them for takeout orders.

Austin does seem to be a pioneer in reforming wasteful packaging. Last June, the city served as home to the country's first "no-packaging" grocery store, called in.gredients. You have to bring your own boxes, bags, jars, bottles, and other containers to fill up on the store's selection of only organic or local products, from beer to baby shampoo.

5 Products Best Bought in Reusable Containers

Even if your city doesn't pass such an aggressive bag ban, you can still make disposable bags illegal in your house.

Load up on reusable bags. Opt for good sturdy bags made from nylon or organic cotton, and try not to rely too heavily on those 50-cent reusable bags at grocery stores. Tests have shown that those cheaper reusable bags may be contaminated with lead.

Wash them regularly. Toss your reusable bags in the laundry every few times you use them to keep dirt, meat juices, and other gunk and bacteria from contaminating your produce. (Another reason to opt for washable materials like cotton and nylon!)

Don't forget your produce! Interestingly, Austin's bag ban doesn't apply to flimsy plastic produce bags, which can only be reused so many times before they fall apart. Look for reusable produce bags on sites like or make your own from scraps of cloth or an old bedsheet.