Archive for the ‘Plastic Bag Bans’ Category

Plastic bag on a South Padre Island beach

By Madeleine Sandefur

Co-Chair, LRGV Sierra Club Sustainability Committee

What do Honolulu, Austin, Brownsville, South Padre Island and Laguna Vista have in common?  “Laguna what?” you might say–and that would be completely understandable, as our little town is not even listed on most Texas maps. We don’t even have our own zip code; we share one with our neighbor, Port Isabel.

However, we do have this in common with the more recognizable cities mentioned above: we recently banned plastic bags from our community!

I’ll be the first to admit that it is much easier to get plastic bags banned in a smaller community than in a large city.  What helped our cause is that I asked our city manager a year and a half ago to form an Environmental Quality Committee.  Initially, our aim was to have Laguna Vista declared a “Cool City,” when the Sierra Club was working on that initiative, and we did get that accomplished.  On the very evening when the town council voted affirmatively on that item, I was enormously lucky to meet two very dedicated “greenies” who agreed not only to serve with me on that committee, but they later joined the LRGV Sierrans:  Yolanda and Walter Birdwell.

At first, progress on some of the Cool City goals was painfully slow and oftentimes frustrating.  I believe what helped us was patience, persistence, and showing our willingness to help with other projects the city wanted to accomplish.  For example, we volunteered to organize Earth Day events for two years running.  We helped with a youth workshop the city manager co-hosted with another environmental organization.

Little by little, the city manager realized that we didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk; we were DOERS.  In meeting after meeting, we brought up the subject of a bag ban, and we encountered resistance.  We argued that it would be a lot easier to put a ban in place now, when there were very few active businesses, rather than waiting for what surely will be a flurry of new development when the Second Causeway will land practically at our doorstep.  In fact, that’s where some of the resistance came in; they were afraid that it would keep businesses from setting up shop.

Finally, we took the initiative and did a survey.  It was in three parts: two in-person ones (one at the recycling station on a Saturday morning; the other going door-to-door in a neighborhood), and one was conducted by e-mail.  It showed that 87% of those questioned were IN FAVOR of a ban.  We also knew that the only convenience store in town, Stripes, was already subject to a ban in Brownsville and South Padre Island, and we had been advised that we would not encounter any resistance on that front.

Armed with this knowledge, and with support from the chair of the Parks Committee and her husband (who happens to be a city councilman), we again approached our city manager and asked him to put the item on the agenda.  The clincher was when apparently, our city manager contacted the Stripes’ area manager and asked him how he would feel about a ban, and he apparently told him “Do it!”

And so it was that the ordinance “banning the use of plastic carry-out bags within  the corporate limits of the Town of Laguna Vista” was approved unanimously on first and second reading, and will be in effect on a voluntary basis from today until January 1, 2013, when it will become mandatory.


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The Isla Blanca All Stars on a Sunday evening clean up

By Madeleine Sandefur, Chair of the LRGV Sierra Club Sustainability Committee

As the sun sinks lower on Sunday evenings at the Isla Blanca County Park on South Padre Island, chances are you will encounter a group of LRGV Sierrans who have taken on a seemingly thankless task: picking up trash!

Official estimates peg the number of weekend visitors to Isla Blanca at 6,000-7,000.  Anyone who has been there during the summer months knows that there are mountains of trash left by uncaring beachgoers.  Our group, called the Isla Blanca All Stars, picks up a lot of it, but the REAL mission is to get a message across, which we proclaim on our t-shirts in both English and Spanish: “Respect your beaches; pick up your trash!”  We try to instill some “pride of ownership” – we are, after all, owners of these beaches!  Additionally, we educate the public about the devastating effects litter can have on marine life, such as sea turtles and dolphins, with whom we share the ocean.

This effort was started last Summer with just 3 or 4 volunteers, and has since grown to just shy of a dozen.  Coincidentally, it is quite an international group, with 3 foreign countries represented; volunteers are therefore able to address beachgoers in both English and Spanish.  The goal is to recruit more young people and involve area high school students – we fully realize that it is the younger generation who has to be taught the importance of helping our environment.

Overall, we feel we have had some success in getting out these messages.  Parents have sent their kids over to bring us their trash; some people have thanked us for doing this.  Others have asked us how much we get paid… and when we tell them we are volunteers, their eyes register surprise.  Still others think that the park entrance fee absolves them from having to pick up and leave their trash in the barrels the county provides!

Our nickname was bestowed on us by the Surfrider Foundation’s South Texas chapter and their president, Rob Nixon, who has fought this battle for a long time.  He was instrumental in recently obtaining a commitment from the Cameron County Commissioners, the County Parks Department, and the Constable for this precinct to provide more oversight and start enforcing the litter laws on county beaches.  Additio-nally, our group met with the Director and Assistant Director of the Parks Department and asked them to provide more trash barrels, more frequent pick-ups, and requested that they re-visit the possibility of instituting  the “Cash for Trash” program, which has been very successful on the northern part of the island, at Isla Blanca Park also.

If you live in the Lower Laguna Madre area, or are just visiting the beach one weekend, we would love to have you join our group!  Our motivation and mottos are simple: “The person who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic — the person who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the person who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done. ” (Theodore Roosevelt) –


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Meade)

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By Stefanie Herweck

They drift in the breeze like white, yellow and blue parachutes and look almost lovely, until they are caught and shredded by a fence, tangled in a tree, or stretched wet and filthy over a drain grate.  They are plastic bags, and they have become a part of the scenery in the Rio Grande Valley, accumulating everywhere, even in rural and natural areas far away from the nearest stores.

Plastic bags have become such an everpresent eyesore that citizens are increasingly willing to trade their small convenience for bag-free streets, sidewalks, and parks.  Dozens of U.S. cities have banned single-use plastic bags or imposed fees for them.  Our own Valley communities of Brownsville and South Padre Island have been at the forefront of the effort to stop the plastic bag blight in Texas, with each passing an ordinance that charges consumers a fee for their use.

These ordinances are gaining traction in part because plastic bag litter is so visible and so unsightly.  Discarded bags blowing around set back efforts to keep our cities clean, and they trash our pristine natural areas.  But plastic bags also have negative impacts that we don’t see—impacts that are far more threatening to the environment and human health.

Every year countless animals die from encounters with plastic bags.  They become entangled in the bags, like the raptor that I witnessed trying desperately to disentangle its talons on a South Padre Island beach a few years ago.  Animals also ingest the bags.  One of the Valley’s premier species, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, can mistake plastic bags floating on the tide for jellyfish and eat them, causing intestinal blockage and even death.

And millions upon millions of bags are floating out there.   They drift on the currents, where exposure to sunlight makes them brittle, causing them to crumble into smaller and smaller pieces.  The plastic does not break down into its component elements; it just fragments into more and more pieces of plastic that are smaller and smaller.  These plastic bits float just below the surface of the water and collect in high concentrations in the mid-ocean gyres, where currents spiral together and the world’s plastic waste accumulates.

This plastic soup is made more poisonous because plastic is oliophilic, meaning that it attracts oil.  Thus it absorbs other oily pollutants that it encounters such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, and motor oil.  When the now highly toxic plastic bag fragments reach a small enough size, they are consumed by zooplankton and filter feeders, and the bag enters the food chain along with the deadly toxins that it absorbed.  Fish eat the plankton, bigger fish in turn eat them, and the plastic and chemicals climb the food chain.  Trace amounts of these chemicals are found in humans, suggesting that we are ultimately consuming the toxin-laden plastics that we so carelessly threw away.

The landfill and the recycling bin are not much more appealing options.   It is costly to get the bags to the landfill.  A study in Austin found that the taxpayers of that city pay $850,000 a year to put plastic bags in landfills and clean them up as litter.  Plastic bags are more likely than other trash to escape from landfills on the wind.  Since the bags do not biodegrade, they remain intact for 500 to 1,000 years, ever threatening to contaminate surrounding lands and streams.

The cost to recycle plastic bags outweighs their value, so often they are not recycled, even when placed in bins set aside for this purpose.  It is estimated that only 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled, and few new bags have recycled content.

Single-use bags, like all plastic, are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.  Fourteen plastic bags contain enough petroleum to drive a car a mile.  We throw away 380 million of them each year—equivalent to dumping 12 million barrels of oil.  Plastic bags give us the pollution of petrochemicals, but none of the energy.

Plastic bags in a field across from Bicentennial Park in Edinburg

Recognizing the harm that single-use bags bring with them, McAllen is the latest city to propose a bag ban.  The Texas Retailers Association and its members oppose the ban.  This week McAllen City Commissioner Scott Crane announced that McAllen’s ban would be put on hold for 90 days while retailers like HEB and Wal-Mart create a voluntary education program.  Just such an outreach effort took place in Austin in 2008 and 2009, but it fell short of its goals.  So, in March Austin is expected to pass an ordinance to first impose fees for, and then ban outright, single-use plastic bags.

As in Austin, McAllen’s voluntary effort is unlikely to succeed.  In the meantime a delay in banning single-use bags will mean that their pollution continues to pile up.

It’s time to stop thinking of single-use bags, as “disposable.”  The fact is that the plastic bag you carry groceries home in today will outlive you.  Your great-grandchildren won’t be able to see it, but its pollutants will still be in the soil that they walk on and the water that they swim in.  Along with their great-grandmother’s eyes or their great grandfather’s smile, they will inherit the plastics and toxins that we bequeathed them, just so that we wouldn’t have to remember to bring along a reusable bag.

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