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Earth Friendly: Brownsville bans plastic bags, will charge fee for continued use

Oct. 19, 2010 at 5:19 a.m.
Updated Oct. 21, 2010 at 5:21 a.m.

Meridith Byrd

By Meridith Byrd

Brownsville? Really?

That was my initial reaction when I recently read about an ordinance that was passed in Brownsville discouraging the usage of plastic bags. It brought to mind San Francisco's plastic bag ban that was implemented in 2007. California has long been thought of as forward-thinking on environmental issues, so San Francisco's ban did not come as a surprise.

For South Texas, however, this is a big deal.

Brownsville is the first city in Texas, and only the 12th in the nation, to pass a citywide ordinance regarding the use of plastic bags.

PLANTING SEEDS OF CHANGE

Healthy Communities of Brownsville is described on its website as "a non-profit, grassroots community organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for the citizens of Brownsville."

In March 2009, after publishing and distributing a coloring book on litter to children in Brownsville and Matamoros, the group was asked by the mayor of Brownsville to find a way to reduce the number of plastic bags littering the area.

Healthy Communities set about researching similar efforts that had been considered or passed in cities like Seattle and San Francisco.

"We designed a 10-question survey on plastic bags and talked to people from all walks of life, people at malls, schools, farmers markets, colonias, you name it," said Rose Timmer, executive director of Healthy Communities of Brownsville. People were surveyed for almost nine weeks and most were in favor of reducing plastic bag usage. Major retailers, such as H-E-B and Walmart, agreed to support the ordinance if it were passed by the city. A public forum that followed was well-received by the public, with only a small number of attendees voicing objections.

ORDINANCE PASSES

Healthy Communities worked with Brownsville's mayor to draft an ordinance, which by December 2009, had its first reading at the city commission meeting. On Jan. 5, a voluntary ban on plastic bags was passed, and an environmental advisory committee was created to monitor the effects of the ban on the community.

In September, the ordinance was amended to exempt certain types of plastic bags, including dry cleaning bags, newspaper and umbrella sleeves, garment bags, produce bags and bags used to wrap meat.

REACTION IN COMMUNITY

To help residents transition away from plastic bags, banners hang around Brownsville reminding everyone to "BYOB," or bring your own bag.

On Earth Day, H-E-B and Walmart gave out more than 150,000 reusable bags to shoppers, all at no charge. The mayor and city commissioners worked shifts as honorary grocery baggers, loading residents' groceries into the free, reusable bags to help promote the BYOB effort. "Many people came out just to see them bagging groceries," laughs Timmer, who notes that since the passing of the ordinance, she has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community.

The use of reusable bags has increased since January, though not as significantly as Healthy Communities had hoped. However, there has already been a notable decrease in litter, and Timmer expects an even bigger impact early next year.

$1 FEE IMPOSED IN JANUARY

On Jan. 5, 2011, the second phase of Brownsville's ordinance goes into effect: People wanting their goods bagged in plastic will be charged $1 per transaction. Part of the fee will go back to the retailer, and part will go to the city and be used to fund environmental education efforts.

"We would rather not see any money from this fee," said Timmer, explaining that she would prefer that people get into the habit of bringing their own bags.

RESPONDING TO OPPOSITION

I asked Timmer how she responds to the objection that many people reuse their grocery bags as trash can liners or for pet waste. "A better option is the 100-percent biodegradeable bags sold at pet stores, and these types of bags are placed at parks around Brownsville for people to use for their pets' waste," she replied.

Trash can liners made of recycled plastic are more environmentally friendly and can be found at most stores.

LOOKING AHEAD

Timmer is eager to see if residents' use of reusable bags will continue to increase, and litter will continue to decrease, once the fee goes into effect in January.

Other Texas towns are following Brownsville's lead, with Port Isabel and South Padre Island looking to pass similar ordinances in the future.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites read ers to contact her at meridith.byrd@gmail.com.

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