The City of Austin might enact one of the broadest bag bans in the nation and prohibit disposable paper and plastic bags at all checkout counters starting in January 2016.

In the meantime, starting in 2013, retailers could continue to offer thin, so-called single-use bags, but customers would have to pay 25 cents apiece for them, according to a draft of the ban. That three-year period would give the public and retailers time to prepare for the ban, city officials say.

More than two dozen U.S. cities have enacted bag bans since 2007. Most prohibit plastic only, or ban plastic and impose a fee on paper. Austin would be one of only a few U.S. cities to ban both, said Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, the city department that wrote the draft ban and handles trash collection and recycling.

Under the ban, retailers would be able to offer only reusable bags, defined as those that have handles and are made of fabric or durable materials or are thick paper or plastic bags with some recycled content.

Exempt from the ban would be restaurant carryout bags, bags for wine and beer, dry cleaning bags, newspaper delivery bags and bags that hold meat, fish, produce, bulk foods or pharmaceuticals.

The city commission that reviews trash and recycling matters will discuss the draft ban Wednesday. The City Council will consider and might vote on it next month.

City Council members and environmental activists say plastic bags pollute waterways, harm wildlife, clog drainage systems and often end up as unsightly litter or landfill trash. But others say paper bags also cause environmental harm, taking as much or more energy to make and transport.

In August, the City Council asked city staffers to begin writing a plastic bag ban and determine, among other things, whether the ban should apply to all retailers and to paper bags, too.

As drafted, Austin’s ban would apply to retailers big and small and encompass single-use paper and plastic bags. Such bags would also be banned at City of Austin facilities, at events held on city property and at city-sponsored events.

To stave off a possible plastic bag ban in 2008, six large Austin retailers agreed to try to voluntarily reduce plastic bag use and increase the use of reusable bags. City officials say those efforts weren’t effective enough.

The Texas Retailers Association, which represents grocery stores, pharmacies and other retailers statewide, has resisted a ban and said it is disappointed with the details of the draft.

Ronnie Volkening, the group’s president, said Friday that the 25-cent fee would be one of the highest in the nation.

“It will have a hugely regressive impact on low-income citizens and
families,” he said.

He also said the ban unfairly exempts some plastic goods, such as dry cleaning bags, while targeting large retailers that have worked hard to cut down on plastic bags by promoting recycling and reuse. Enacting a ban would be a disincentive for retailers to continue to accept plastic bags and other plastic products for recycling, meaning many more of those products could end up in landfills, he said.

Amy Everhart , policy director for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said he’s OK with not enacting a full ban until 2016 because it will give residents time to alter their habits. But the mayor hasn’t decided whether he favors the 25-cent fee and the ban on paper bags, Everhart said.

“I have not supported the idea of paper bags being included in the ban in the past, but I’m willing to listen to the arguments on why they should be,” Leffingwell said in a statement. “My biggest concern is that I don’t want folks to get to the checkout and have absolutely no options for bags. I prefer paper over plastic as a last-resort option because they can be recycled (through the city’s recycling program), whereas plastic cannot.”

The city would get 22.5 cents of every 25 cents retailers charge for
single-use bags from 2013 to 2016, the draft says. Retailers would keep the rest. The city would use the money to promote the use of reusable bags. Those with a Lone Star Card, a state program for food and financial assistance, would not have to pay the 25-cent fee.

When the ban starts in 2016, retailers could offer only reusable bags,
including thick plastic bags with at least 50 percent recycled content and thick paper bags with 100 percent recycled content.

Reusable bags would have to carry the message “reusable and recyclable.” And retailers would have to prominently display signs about the benefits of reducing, reusing and recycling and the need to carry reusable bags.

Enforcement of the fee and ban would mostly be driven by customer complaints about specific stores, and violating either would be a Class C misdemeanor, Gedert said.

Retailers that think the ban would cause undue hardship could apply to Austin Resource Recovery, the city’s trash and recycling department, to deviate “minimally” from the ban.

Brownsville’s ordinance might be the most similar to Austin’s draft ban. That South Texas city began asking retailers last year to charge a $1 -per-transaction fee for single-use paper and plastic bags. The fee became mandatory in January, and city officials have said they’ll probably consider soon whether to replace the fee with a ban.

In a recent American-Statesman review of a dozen cities’ bag bans, several officials said bans work well only if cities do aggressive marketing or outreach efforts early to alert customers to the change.

Gedert said Austin will educate the public, probably using the money from the 25-cent fee, which he estimates will bring in about $1.5 million over three years.

[email protected]; 912-2939

Basics of the bag ban draft

January 2013 to late December 2015: Single-use plastic and paper bags still available, but only upon customer request. Retailers must charge a 25-cent fee for each bag.

January 2016: Ban takes effect for single-use paper and plastic bags. Still allowed: reusable bags that have handles and are made of fabrics, durable materials, or thicker plastic or paper with recycled content.

Exempt: Restaurant carryout bags; dry cleaning bags, yard waste and newspaper bags; bags for produce, fish, meats, frozen foods, bulk foods and prescription drugs; bags for beer, wine and spirits.

If you go

The city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission will meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Austin City Hall, 301 W. Second St., to discuss the draft of a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags. The public is welcome.