Guest Column

It’s time Texas joins movement to stop the plastic-bag insanity

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While strolling along the quiet northern end of the River Walk on Sunday, I was reminded of my pre-plastic childhood. In those days, seemingly all containers were either recyclable or biodegradable. Empty cans became planters for seedlings, jars found new uses, and we kids picked up all discarded bottles to collect the deposits.

On Sunday, I saw a family of mallards dodging plastic bags floating in the river, and later I spied two more urban tumbleweeds tangled high in trees.

The River Walk is not poorly maintained. Workers regularly pick up garbage on the walkways and, from barges, pluck the water-borne detritus.

But here and globally, the use of plastics — most of which don’t biodegrade — has exploded. In 1960, plastics represented less than 1 percent of municipal garbage. By 2005, they were 12 percent.

A major global problem is the use of flimsy plastic bags by retailers. Globally, a half trillion are used each year. Precious few are recycled, or even properly disposed of. The gentlest breeze will give them flight, and they now routinely clog sewers and waterways, and kill off wildlife of all kinds.

In the Pacific Ocean, currents have formed a garbage patch that is now twice the size of Texas.The common plastic “T-shirt bags” make up much of this mass. Because the bags are everywhere, many governments are taking steps to curb their use.

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania banned the flimsy bags by setting minimum-thickness standards. In 2003, Ireland slapped a 22-cent levy on each bag.

And last year, China — the world’s largest plastics exporter — cracked down on what is there called “white pollution” by ordering retailers to charge for the bags. Germany — the third-largest plastics exporter — ordered retailers to give customers the option of buying low-cost, reusable cotton bags.

New York City makes large retailers offer to recycle the bags, and San Francisco and 30 Alaskan towns have simply banned them.

In Texas, several large retail chains already offer recycling and reusable bags, and Whole Foods has stopped using plastic bags. But legislative action is also being considered.

San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van De Putte’s Senate Bill 338 would require retailers that employ 51 or more workers to verbally offer customers low-cost reusable bags at checkout stands. Her bill would also require that plastic bags be stamped with reminders to recycle them and that retailers supply highly visible recycling bins.

Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchía’s plastic bag bill takes another tack. It would require that stores collect a 7-cent fee on each bag and that the sum be listed on the receipt.

Exempt from the fee would be bags “used solely to contain a product with no other packaging, (like) bulk grains, fruit, nuts, vegetables or food products” and costlier “compostable” bags. Retailers would keep 3 percent of the bag fees collected and the rest would go to counties and cities to pay for recycling programs.

Given that even Third World countries are taking decisive action, it is time for Texas to follow suit, because increasingly our natural heritage is being spoiled by bags wafting along our roadways and getting snagged in trees, bushes and even barbed-wire in the loneliest places.

Carlos Guerra

To view this article on the San Antonio Express News site, click here.