No more study; just ban plastic bags

Op-ed by Peggy Day, Alamo Group Chair
November 25, 2013

SAN ANTONIO — I am writing to correct assertions in the Express-News Nov. 15 editorial, “Plastic bag ban needs more study.”

Banning thin film plastic carryout bags is not “a complex issue that deserves close study by City Council” but an issue that has been studied exhaustively around the state, indeed the world, and bans are winning the debate.

The editorial claims “at their worst, plastic bags are unsightly pollutants that get trapped in trees and caught on bushes.” No, what is worse is plastic bags kill and cost a lot. Ranchers in our area attest that cows die from ingesting them, as does wildlife. Fort Stockton and Kermit banned plastic bags in part because of cattle deaths. Sunlight eventually breaks down bags from their petroleum derived polymers into microscopic granules. These molecules build up in water and soil, absorb other pollutants, and concentrate in the food chain, eventually contributing to rising rates of cancer and other diseases in humans.

“Cleanup costs” include all these indirect costs, because, despite however much money and labor the city, county, state, and citizen groups like Basura Bash volunteers may fork up — the plastic bag litter remains!

The City Council announced a resolution to ban “single use bags.” What the editorial fails to notice is that this includes plastic and paper bags. Hopefully, an ordinance will be adopted that bans plastic and requires a fee high enough to discourage and end the use of paper bags, which also have a high environmental and cost burden.

The social and environmental benefits of reusable bags are clear, if the bags are durable and made responsibly. The ban can be an important tool for educating citizens on everyday responsibilities in a sustainable society.

The health concerns of reusable bags are a scare tactic. Food carried in reusable bags is protected by its packaging and, if not, washing the bags when needed is environmentally sounder than using hundreds of plastic bags every year. The water used for washing is recycled, thanks to our city's great water treatment system. The editorial claims fecal coliform is a big problem, but Consumer's Union scientists debunked this. These alarmist reports are paid for by the chemical industry, in this case the American Chemical Council.

The editorial claims studies have suggested bag bans hurt businesses. Yet, a 2013 proposed bill to prohibit bag bans in Texas was withdrawn, ostensibly because the Texas Retailers Association was unable to verify any damages from bag bans.

The argument that the poor are most burdened by a bag ban is also baseless. Lower income families will gain from bag bans, especially if the true costs of single-use bags, including health costs, are factored in, and because they have no choice but to pay imbedded plastic and paper bag costs that raise prices.

The editorial recommends council first consider improving plastic bag recycling. The city already did fund such an effort. We paid a quarter of a million dollars in taxpayer money and delayed two years to support their Change is in the Bag plan, which failed. As for bundling bags for curbside recycling, Austin tried and failed.

Recycling plastic bags is not enough. The EPA reports over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year and barely 1 to 5 percent are recycled. Many bags will continue to fly off landfill sites or be tossed and end up clogging drains, despoiling the landscape, and killing.

It is uneconomical to recycle plastic bags. Repairing recycling machines can cost millions. A Clean Air Council study found that recycling 1 ton of plastic bags costs $4,000, but the recycled product can be sold for only $32.

Margaret Day is chairwoman of the Sierra Club Alamo Chapter.

Editor's note: This op-ed was published in the November 25, 2013 edition of the San Antonio Express-News (link to article)


Waste Management Update

February, 2013

Unfortunately, for some time the Alamo Group has not had anyone on our Conservation Committee informed and active on waste issues, and our Recycling Sub Committee has been dormant.  So it has been hard to engage with waste management issues. This is a problem since the goals and so many programs —multifamily and organics recycling, plastic bag reduction—and future zero waste plans, such as Pay As You Throw, or PAYT—are in flux and under attack.  San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Division (SWMD) does not provide regular online reports of its programs, which makes it a chore to keep tabs. They require we fill out freedom of information requests to get answers instead of just posting regular updates on the progress and problems of its plans, projects and programs, as more transparent agencies do. Surely SWMD has these reports for its top administration and city leaders. Instead they only post upbeat public relations pieces. After poring over my files, news reports, and some city files, it seems that there are many gaps in the information needed to assess program progress, but here is an update.

Multifamily recycling

A SWMD public relations release (see “Countdown” link) claims the multifamily recycling is fully implemented, but SWMD offers no information online on the levels of site or tenant participation or the percent of waste recycled. The Alamo Sierra Club has received complaints from apartment dwellers that still do not have recycling.  According to Jim Johnson at Waste Recycling News (see link), the larger multifamily properties had a 97% to 100% compliance rate—100% of the 118 sites with 300 or more units, 98% of the 215 sites with 200 to 299 units, and 97% of the 220 sites with 100 to 199 apartments  are compliant. However, by the compliance deadline only 16% of the 826 properties with fewer than 100 units were compliant.  Part of the reason is San Antonio only assigned one staff to manage the program, although the office reportedly later begun to assign others lend a hand with the smaller sites. The City’s budget for educational outreach for the multifamily residential recycling effort was $250,000.

Plastic Bag Reduction

The 18 month plastic bag reduction program, called Change is in the Bag, ended last December. The City and SWMD have never made reports available to the public on their websites—perhaps because it was a weak plan and had little effect. A report in Plaza de Armas, by Elaine Wolff (see link) characterized the results as “disappointing.” Recycling of plastic film products was up, but plastic bag distribution was up too. So it is clear the there was no reduction of plastic bag use overall, just more if it was recycled. I have been monitoring and testing the situation at the participating retailers before, during and after, and there was never a significant change in the retailers—they continue to maintain a culture of plastic bag dependence. What is more disappointing is that the city invested a lot of resources, including at least $250,000, promoting the plan and did not have, and still has, no follow-up plans.

Organics Recycling

The organics recycling pilot program, which just ended, included 30,000 residential customers, offered an opt in, three-dollar per month fee for a green 92 or 48 gallon cart for organic waste. SWMD claims the program was well regarded by the participants. The material was collected, and sent to a local company, New Earth, for composting and sale. Unfortunately, opponents lead by Councilman Soules brought up questions and alternative options that succeeded in cutting the planned follow-up organics recycling program implementation  from the 2013 budget.

City’s 10-Year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan

The SA2020 Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan, fortunately, has a zero waste agenda, with a 60% recycling goal set for 2020. As of last August the City had achieved a total recycling rate of 27%--14% from curb-side recycling, 12% brush recycling, and 1% organic recycling. Unfortunately the main problem right now is the backlash, led by District 10 Councilman Carlton Soules, who succeeded in an attack that kicked the 60% recycling rate goal down the road, from 2020 to 2025. Soules argued for a lower goal set in the SWMD’s 2010 Waste Management Plan, even though the SWMD stood by newer studies showing the 60% rate by 2020 could be achieved and for an overall fee increase of just $4 to $5 per month.

It appears that the District 10 Councilman is a big player in zero waste plans. He has become the leader of attacks on programs and goals. As you may remember, the Alamo Group Political Committee interviewed candidate Carlton Soules before the 2010 elections and did not endorse him. Since being in office, he has been characterized as an “OCD conservative willing to nitpik City Hall initiatives, no matter how small the outlay,” in the words of Elaine Wolff (see link).

Although Soules claims he only wants the best possible recycling program for San Antonio, citizen’s need to question his real motives, since he has been sticking a monkey wrench in many waste plans with all kinds of contradictory arguments.  Soules has also been quoted saying  things that indicate other possible agendas.  The  Wolff article reveals that Soules “argues,“ one, that cheap landfill space will be plentiful in the area for decades; two, that if the City owned its own landfills it would be even cheaper than it is now, and, three, that the recycling program is, quote, ‘a lot of money just to feel good about yourself.’

Can we Sierrans just leave it to fate and hope that Soules and his allies really will work for the best possible recycling program for SA and let them remain arbiters of the fine tuning? At least Soules’ concerns and the delays have forced City Council members to learn much more about waste and recycling than any of them would have, which will help them to make more informed decisions. Moving toward zero waste is a commendable goal that will require big changes. I will commit to getting and posting the actual SWMD updates on these plans and programs. What can you commit to? Please help our Recycling and Political Committees so we can maintain our vigilance and keep city zero waste goals on track and well resourced.


  • “10 Year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan for Residential and Commercial Services,” City of San Antonio SWMD, June 24, 2010.
  • “Staff presentation on the FY 2013 proposed budget focusing on Solid Waste Management,” City Council Minutes, August 28, 2012.
  • “San Antonio has issues with small multifamily unit recycling,” by Waste & Recycling News reporter Jim Johnson, April 5, 2012.
  • “One man's plastic bag is another man's floor,” by Plaza de Armas reporter Elaine Wolff, September 19, 2012.
  • “Soules and Ozuna dig into the City’s recycling program,” by Plaza de Armas’ Elaine Wolff, August 26, 2012.
  • Green carts don't have green light,” by Express News reporter Josh Baugh, August 28, 2012.
  •  “City aims for 60-percent recycling by 2025,” by Express News reporter Josh Baugh, December 6, 2012.
  • Let the Composting Begin: Council to Vote on Curbside Organics Recycling,” by The Rivard Report’s Monika Maeckle, January 30th, 2013.
  • Countdown to Zero”, in Recycling Today online, by Tiffany Edmonds, public relations manager for the San Antonio Solid Waste Management Department, November 1, 2012.

Margaret "Peggy" Day


Earth 911 » Recycling - Go Green

The Earth 911 recycling page provides information about how to recycle, why to recycle and what you can recycle. The Earth 911 green recycling locator box can also help you find where you can recycle by entering a product and your location.