Dallas’s Plastic Bag Ban Went Into Effect on January 1st, and Nobody Seems Happy About It

by Dan Solomon

Source: Texas Monthly

Dallas City Council passed its plastic bag restrictions back in March of last year, but they didn’t go into effect until January 1st. That means that most people didn’t realize just what a poor plan the bag ban—which isn’t really a ban at all, but a $0.05 surcharge per plastic bag distributed—was until last week.

But now that people are paying attention, they are unhappy. That includes both the predictable opposition, which considers bag bans to be nanny state-ism, as well as those who typically sign on for bag bans in other cities. As WFAA reports:

“I dig the idea of getting rid of the plastic bags,” said Eloy Trevino, owner of Green Pet in Dallas’s Bishop Arts District. […]

“The ordinance itself took three college graduates about two or three days to figure out,” Trevino said.

That’s because the new, nine-page document is full of rules that small business never had to care about before.

After some study, Trevino is pretty sure the rules do not apply to his bag. It’s made of 100% recycled paper, so the city says he can still provide them for free to customers.

That sort of confusion appears to be city-wide, according to the Dallas Observer, which sent a reporter to various chain stores like Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods to see how the ban was being carried out. The results there appeared to be mixed, as well:

I decided to take a few trips to grocery stores around Dallas—Kroger, WalMart, and Whole Foods—to see whether or not the bag ban would have the intended effect of reducing the amount of plastic bags taken at the register. Somewhat surprisingly, many of the people I saw walking into the three Dallas-area grocery stores I visited this weekend were hauling in piles of reusable bags.

But there were still plenty of idiots (myself included) who had forgotten to grab their bags out of the back of whatever closet they’re shoved in at the moment. At the Kroger on Capitol Avenue near Cityplace, a woman approached me in the parking lot as I put my plastic-bagged groceries into the back of my car and asked whether or not I had brought the plastic bags from home, because she was under the impression that they had been banned altogether.

At that same Kroger, it was clear that the employees had not been trained on how exactly to handle the new tax. After I’d swiped my card to pay, the cashier had to cancel the transaction because she’d forgotten to count the bags and ring them up before totaling my order. In the end, I was under-charged by ten or fifteen cents because there were a few bags that required double-bagging.

It makes sense that people would be confused by the ordinance: Unlike ordinances in other cities, paper bags that can’t withstand a hundred uses of carrying 15 pounds worth of groceries don’t qualify as “reusable,” and thus are subject to the same five-cent fee, unless they’re made out of 100% recycled materials and are stamped to identify them as such, while the description of the new ordinance as a “bag ban” is misleading, since the bags aren’t banned, just taxed.

There are other issues surrounding the ban in Dallas, too. The constitutionality of bag bans in cities like Austin (which actually in fact bans single-use grocery bags) may be in question (Governor-Elect Greg Abbott raised the issue in the fall), but few can argue that they don’t do what they’re intended to do, which is reduce the number of plastic bags in the city. Indeed, if Austinites want the flimsy, disposable plastic bags to which they’ve become accustomed, they need to drive to, say, Pflugerville, Round Rock, Leander, or Manor to get them—perhaps not terribly inconvenient for shoppers who are already near those areas, but given Austin’s traffic woes, an unrealistic option for most. In the Dallas area, though, driving to a neighboring municipality for the sake of convenience isn’t exactly unheard of. As Dallas real estate blogger Candy Evans points out, when Los Angeles instituted a ban on plastic bags, people actually did take advantage of the many suburban options for grocery shopping, according to a study from the conservative-leaning National Center for Policy Analysis:

The ban negatively affected employment at stores inside the ban area. While every store inside the ban area was forced to terminate some of its staff, not a single store outside the ban area dismissed any staff. Stores inside the ban area reduced their employment by more than 10 percent. Stores outside the ban area increased their employment by 2.4 percent.

Many stores also began purchasing reusable bags. While 43 percent of stores in the ban area had not purchased reusable bags before, every store purchased these bags after the ban. And nearly half of these stores (48 percent), lost money on reusable bags. Of the stores that lost money, 38 percent expected the losses to stop after 1 month to 3 months, another 38 percent thought the losses would continue indefinitely. In order to stop losing money, 29 percent of stores ceased providing free reusable bags, and another 36 percent increased prices on these bags. Most stores also lost money on paper bags.

It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Dallas shoppers plan to do their shopping while they’re in Grand Prairie, Richardson, or Garland, say—but the other issue with Dallas’s bag ban is simply that it doesn’t ban bags, and a $0.05 surcharge isn’t necessarily going to be an effective deterrent.

Other Texas cities besides Austin have bag bans: Laredo’s goes into effect this coming weekend, while small municipalities from Fort Stockton to Kermit to Port Aransas have all passed various laws preventing stores from distributing single-use bags. Over in Brownsville, though—which was the first city in Texas to pass a law about plastic bags—customers can get them with a $1 surcharge per transaction.

That might be insignificant if you’re making an HEB trip to buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four, but it’s effective when it comes to a trip to the convenience store. The point of these laws, in part, is to simply get consumers to consider their habits—when the clerk asks, “Do you want a bag?” you’re a lot more likely to consider whether you really need it when it costs a dollar. When it costs a nickel, though, the same unthinking instinct to have a slightly more convenient walk back to the car can come into effect.

We’ll see what the end result is of Dallas’s bag ban, assuming such laws remain in place pending potential lawsuits coming from the state. But it’s hard to imagine that it’s going to be culturally transformative the way that the ban in Austin has been. Mostly, it seems like it’s just frustrating people on every side of the issue.

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