Bag the Bags, Wack the Waste

By Helen Cordes   

The case for eating locally grown foods requires no further evidence than the taste test: What mouth wouldn’t melt when presented a farm-fresh, golden fig slice topped with creamy, handmade goat cheese? For many locavores, the taste and health advantages are amplified even more by avoiding the pollutants that come with food transport, production and packaging. Yet for virtually every food shopper, the green goodness falters when it’s time to pack up the goodies and they all go into those UBIQUITOUS PLASTIC BAGS.

Good news: a growing “Bag the Bags” movement aims to end the insane proliferation of litter-making, oil-depleting plastic bags by banning them in Austin. Several major retailers including Whole Foods and HEB, and local growers like Boggy Creek Farm, have begun the move away from plastic bags and toward reusable.

Even better, a “zero waste” initiative, underway by Austin city government, will soon help all of us take a giant green leap forward by shrinking the total garbage—plastic bags and everything else—headed to the landfills by 20 percent in the next four years, achieving zero landfill waste by 2040. The zero waste measures now being formulated for Austin may include turning the methane (an enormous global-warming culprit) currently off-gassing in organic waste landfills into electricity, as well as diverting the mounds of organic waste from food and yards (two-thirds of Austin trash) to composting sites. Austin would be following the lead of cities like San Francisco, where plastic bags are no longer used by major retailers and plastic foam takeout containers are banned; where organic waste from food and yards is picked up and composted; and where most of the remaining metal, glass, paper and plastic is recycled. San Francisco’s payoff: 70 percent of their trash currently diverted from landfills, and projected zero waste by 2020. “Banning plastic bags is a great first step,” says Rick Cofer, head of Austin’s Bag the Bags coalition, as well as a member of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission. “And when you add in zero waste, we could make a huge difference in our greenhouse gas emissions.”

This fall, Austinites will reap the first benefits of the zero waste innovation, with a “single-stream” collection system that allows residents to place all nonorganic recyclables—from paper to plastic—into a single, large bin for curbside pickup. Pilot programs in Austin and elsewhere show that participation skyrockets when residents don’t have to sort recyclables. Among likely upcoming zero waste measures, Cofer hopes to see financial incentives for consumers and businesses reducing and recycling more of their trash.

So how do we accelerate these green visions? Agitate, say advocates, by calling and emailing key players (see Toolbox), and urging your friends and neighbors to do the same. And why not begin your own zero waste journey now? Try these key steps.

  • Get fed up. “For years, it’d been driving me crazy to put our beautiful produce into all those plastic bags,” says Claire Porter, a longtime partner at Boggy Creek Farm. “Then one day I lost it—started throwing around plastic bags and hollering about how we’ve got to get rid of them,” she says, chuckling as she recalls the story. “That’s when we decided that we just had to stop,” says Boggy Creek co-owner Carol Ann Sayle. With plenty of advance customer notice, Boggy Creek banned the bags in November, and, so far, not one complaint, says Sayle. Customers who forget bags simply take the produce to their cars in a basket and unload. While Boggy Creek currently provides “intimate” bags for loose greens and other small veggies and fruit, customers are urged to begin bringing their own bags for those purchases in the future, as well.


  • Voice your support for the ban. Whole Foods Market has banned plastic bags in all stores in the U.S., UK and Canada, and Austin HEB stores gave away 20,000 reusable totes and expanded the number of collection bins for recycling plastic bags. Other retailers are participating in the voluntary bag-reduction program mandated by an Austin City Council resolution last year that hopes to reduce bags by half. Some feel that a bag ban will reduce bags much quicker than voluntary efforts, so let retailers know you support a ban! Interestingly, in cities and countries that have enacted bans, or levied minor taxes on plastic-bag use, evidence indicates that such policies don’t present hardships for businesses or consumers, contrary to what the powerful plastic-bag manufacturer lobby states.


  • Make riches from rot. Composting is easy, particularly in our hot climate where fruit and veggie waste, coffee grounds and leaves break down into rich soil quickly. Plenty of organizations and websites offer compost advice, and you need not have a backyard to do it. Indoor composters the size of a kitchen trash can break down waste with no smell, and under-the-sink earthworm tubs rapidly transform household food scraps into rich soil fertilizer.


  • “See” your garbage and reduce. “Our garbage doesn’t just disappear,” says Melanie McAfee who lives near one of Austin’s biggest landfills. “We all have to do some hard thinking about what’s fair and best for our environment.” McAfee became a trash activist—serving on the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Board—to help hammer out better landfill policies. She and husband Mark, who own Barr Mansion—the region’s only certified organic events facility—also walk the walk at home, composting all organic waste (including leftover food from weddings and other events) and recycling most of the rest of their trash.
  • Make it fun and simple. Get yourself, your family, your workplace or your neighborhood competing for the most zero waste measures undertaken. How much can you slim down nonrecyclable waste on a typical day? Try bringing your own cup for the morning java, pack lunch in reusable ware and pass on the bags and extra packaging when shopping for food and anything else. Start making trash-shrinking a way of life and you’ll be better prepared for the inevitable restrictions ahead as landfills overflow. And simply think before you buy. “Reducing what we bring home from stores means much less waste and pollution,” notes Cofer. “I find it helps to put off a purchase when I see something I like,” says Boggy Creek’s Porter. “Most of the time, I find that, later, I don’t want it as much.”