Dallas’ plastic bag ban debate could drag on a long, long time

by Rudolph Bush

Source: The Dallas Morning News

For at least the last five months, council member Dwaine Caraway has been fired up to get City Hall to ban plastic bags and hopefully stop them from becoming the clingiest kind of litter.

It was just two weeks ago that he lashed out at council colleagues who weren't equally passionate, accusing the bag industry and retailers of getting to them.

This morning, Caraway's temper appeared to have cooled. In the first of what he promised will be many, many briefings on the topics before the council's Quality of Life committee, Caraway said he wants to hear from all sides and gather ideas about how to address the problem of bag litter.

His comments all but assure that the City Council won't vote on a bag ban anytime soon, if ever. Caraway said that he's open to compromise on the issue - which could mean anything from a charge per bag for consumers to some kind of citywide "education" program.

"It is very important that this thing is done right, that we understand all of the different opinions and options and collectively try to come up with a resolution that will represent what we are seeking - a cleaner environment, litter free as much as possible, and everyone happy with the decision," Caraway said.

He then called industry representatives to sit before council members in the seats normally reserved for city staff.

And that was basically all the industry folks did - sit silently while Caraway asked to hear from the audience.

As it turned out, the industry representatives didn't need to say much. Most of the audience was pro-industry as well and appeared to have come to City Hall at the behest of bag makers. The speakers cataloged all kinds of dire consequences for the city should it ban bags - from job loss within the industry to sales taxes flowing to the suburbs to disease sowed in the lining of reusable bags.

The proposed bag ban ordinance before the city would not only ban plastic grocery bags but all single-use bags, including paper, that almost everyone in Dallas relies on from time to time. The proposal comes with a long list of exception. But the hope is to substantially curtail single-use bags and particularly grocery sacks.

Pam Villareal, of the National Center for Policy Analysis, an anti-regulation think tank, said that if they are denied plastic bags, "it would not at all be surprising if shoppers voted with their feet."

Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist who can tell why your bathroom probably isn't as germy as you think, offered up some unpleasant conclusions about reusable bags. The words "fecal bacteria" came up.

That's resolved by washing the bags, of course, but few people do that, he said.

Only one speaker offered up concern about the impact of bag litter - Peter Payton, executive director of Groundwork Dallas.

Payton said he's like everybody else, he uses plastic bags all the time when he runs to the store. But he's done something a lot of people haven't done - worked to clean up Dallas' creek beds and the wild places that feed the river.

"We've pulled over 70 tons of trash and debris of our green belt and over 40 percent of that has been plastic bags," he said.

But the problem is a complicated one, he agreed.

"I don't know what the answer to this is," he said.

At this point, neither does the Dallas City Council. And it will be months now, if then, before it decides.