Austin, Texas, has passed a law restricting plastic and paper retail carryout bags.

The law, which will take effect March 1, 2013, allows for three options: paper or plastic bags of thicker construction with handles, or reusable linen or woven bags, says Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery, in an interview. Because of the replacement options, the city is characterizing it as a bag regulation, not ban.

The new law differs from what Austin City Council proposed in December, which involved a 25-cent interim fee for single-use bags. Gedert says administrative challenges, retail relationship challenges and being accountable to the public made that “too difficult a path to take.”

Exemptions to the law include bags for newspapers, drycleaning, door-hangers, pharmacists, frozen foods, produce and meat. Restaurants are exempt if they offer a recyclable bag, as are charities that distribute food.

Public education will be a key part of the program. Gedert says he expects the city will spend $1.5 million to $2 million on the program. The city and retailers will work together to educate consumers at the counter.

The single-use concept was counter to the city’s zero waste goals, Gedert says. Past voluntary programs weren’t successful enough, so he was asked to develop a plan.  Reusable bags, he says, have a 4-to-1 capacity advantage over single-use bags, and can be used more than 100 times.

The Texas Retailers Association has criticized the plan as not benefiting recycling. The American Progressive Bag Alliance said it could put 8,800 jobs in jeopardy.

Texas Disposal Systems (TDS), based near Austin in Creedmoor, has proposed an alternative “Bag the Bag” program, which stuffs single-use and reusable bags together to make them more recyclable at facilities, said TDS CEO Bob Gregory, in an e-mail to Gedert prior to the vote.

Gregory said TDS intends to offer the program to the communities it services surrounding Austin.

Gedert says his primary objection to TDS’ plan is that it shifts the costs to the curbside program (and residents) from retailers.  “I found it unacceptable given the zero waste goals of the city.”

Regarding the recycling issue: “You don’t produce a recycling stream just to add it to the waste stream.  What we’re trying to work on is waste reduction.”

Gedert says the city estimates it distributes 263 million bags a year. With the law Austin officials hope to get that down to 1 million.

"Change is never easy, but by passing this ordinance and setting a high environmental bar, I am confident that Austin will now ‘rethink’ reusable bags, in addition to our longstanding habits of reducing, reusing and recycling," said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, in a news release.