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SARA General Manager Says City Not Ready For Ban On Plastic Bags - Yet

San Antonio River Authority
Plastic bags are a significant problem for trash along the San Antonio River. This pictures illustrates a portion of trash at Blue Wing Road near the Salado Creek confluence.

A bag ban proposal is working its way through City Hall after District 7 Councilman Cris Medina submitted what's called a Council Consideration Request (CCR).

Medina's proposal includes a ban on single-use plastic bags in San Antonio, but included in the request is also a proposal for council meetings to go paperless and also updates to construction standards to build homes in a more energy-efficient manner.

But it is the proposal for a bag ban is getting the most attention. Suzanne Scott, general manager at the San Antonio River Authority, believes the issue is so controversial and emotional because of the convenience factor.

Last summer and fall, SARA conducted a study of its own because the issue had been presented before. The study asked 403 people in Bexar County: "Would you favor or oppose a city ordinance banning grocery or retail stores in San Antonio from distributing plastic bags to customers?"

"And the results of that was only 44 percent of the folks surveyed were in favor and 47 percent were opposed," Scott said.

What that said, according to Scott, was that people needed to be better educated on the matter. Scott said that while a ban would be beneficial to the environment, she doesn't believe the city is ready for this type of measure.

"Overall, I think it's a great idea to try to reduce the use of plastic bags," she said. "We have a lot of education to do before I believe that we could go to a full ban."

The city has tried voluntary efforts to reduce plastic bag litter and increase recycling, efforts that were largely unsuccessful. Scott said she thinks an incentive program might help people grasp a ban, instead of telling people what they are not allowed to do.

"I think if we could have a carrot versus a stick, if you could get more incentives, if people could get reductions on their grocery bill for every reusable bag they bring, maybe more people would bring reusable bags because they would see that it was an incentive for them to do this," she said. "They personally benefited, saved money by bringing their reusable bags and changing their own behavior."

Medina said he thinks there is a good showing of support. Councilwomen Ivy Taylor and Shirley Gonzales have each said they support the measure. District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, who is filling an interim term, said he wanted to read the proposal first and then talk to his constituents. Language of an ordinance has not been released yet.

"We can point to how other cities have been able to utilize this and use it effectively," said Medina. "I think we're going to have a good discussion on the council about it and we're going to dialogue with the community as well. So I'm confident we're going to get to a place where we all feel comfortable with this ordinance."

H-E-B, which has grocery stores in cities that already ban plastic bags like Austin and Brownsville, takes the brunt of such bans, especially its partners who are helping customers check out and bag their groceries. Spokeswoman Dya Campos said the grocery chain supports voluntary recycling measures and education.

Campos spoke on Tuesday's edition of "The Source" with host and TPR News Director David Martin Davies. She said H-E-B has worked closely with Austin on implementing the ban, but it's a balancing act.

"We believe that decreasing the use of plastic bags is essential, but how do we do that with great ease and really deep concern about the consumer?" she asked.

Those who support a ban, like Andrea Nocito, Mayor Julián Castro's appointee to the Citizens Environmental Advisory Committee, joined Campos and Davies on the program as well. She said recycling rates in cities where bans are implemented haven't worked.

The committee is proposing a phased approach, and recommendations have been submitted to the council, Nocito said. She said it considers a full ban, but after major education components and helping people who can't afford reusable bags.

Nocito said recommendations include: "Helping them form new habits, [providing] free bags to low-income households, which made a big dent in helping people feel secure about making that new habit and switching to a reusable bag."

The San Antonio River Authority reports that 20 tons of trash has been picked up along the Mission Reach of the river this year alone, which includes a significant number of plastic bags.

Medina has asked for a recommendation, either way, to reach the council within 90 days. Many council members are considering how they feel about the proposal, and are speaking with their constituents.

Campos said no one has contacted H-E-B yet on the current proposal on a plastic bag ban. In the meantime, Scott encourages people to be more aware of their plastic bag use.

"Plastic bags, if you need to use them, then reuse them for a purpose," she said. "Maybe use them for your garbage or for picking up your dog waste or something like that. At least you're reusing them more than just throwing them away. And if you do throw them in the garbage can, just make sure that you tie them up so they don't fly away and be more aware of the management of your plastic bags."

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.