FORT WORTH -- They call them urban tumbleweeds -- lightweight plastic bags that litter streets, clog drains, pose a danger to wildlife, and get stuck in tree branches and brush.
Community leaders worldwide are looking at ways to shrink the number of plastic bags that litter communities, some considering or enacting bans to stop the bags from being handed out at grocery and convenience stores.
Italy said ciao to plastic bags this year, as did France last year, with stores in both countries only handing out biodegradable bags. In Bellingham, Wash., officials didn't just ban the bags, they also put a fee on paper bags to encourage shoppers to carry reusable bags. And in Washington, D.C., leaders put a fee on every bag -- paper and plastic -- that consumers carry out of stores.
It was San Francisco that first broke ground in the U.S. with a 2007 plastic bag ban; Brownsville enacted Texas' first plastic bag ban this year.
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Since then, South Padre Island and Fort Stockton are among other Texas cities to follow suit, and Austin officials last week asked city staff to start writing a ban on plastic bags that might include a ban on paper bags as well.
Closer to home, cities aren't yet weighing in on the issue, but that could change in time.
"You never say never to anything," said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who has asked city staff to show her research they have done on the plastic bag issue. "You never say no."
Paper or plastic?
Plastic bags began making their way into stores decades ago.
The question that evolved -- "paper or plastic?" -- has for the most part gone the way of 8-track tapes, as the popularity of plastic bags edged out paper bags.
Estimates show that each person now uses about 130 plastic bags per year. Worldwide, billions of these bags -- perhaps as many as 1 trillion -- are used to help consumers carry home their purchases, according to the California-based Earth Resource Foundation.
Hilex Poly Co. Llc. is the largest U.S. producer of these plastic bags and has nine manufacturing facilities, including sites in Farmers Branch, Carrollton and Garland that employ about 2,600 Texans, said Phil Rozenski, director of marketing for Hilex.
He said much work goes into keeping the bags out of the environment, as officials promote reducing the number of bags used, reusing them and recycling them.
The bags can be used for many things, such as lining trash cans, carrying wet clothes or collecting animal waste. And he said more than 30,000 collection bins are set up nationwide, such as those at Kroger grocery stores. Hilex collects the bags from the bins and ships them to an Indiana recycling center, where they are used to make more plastic bags, Rozenski said.
Rozenski says that plastic bags are cleaner than reusable bags, which if not cleaned could carry bacteria, and that they take up less space than paper bags in landfills -- if that's where they end up.
Kroger officials tout their recycling efforts, saying they have recycled 26 million pounds of plastic since 2007. Between the store's "bagging techniques" and reusable bags, officials estimate that they have prevented more than 150 million plastic bags from being distributed, according to a Kroger Co. sustainability report.
Despite recycling efforts, some environmentalists say the bags are litter and often found in streets or stuck in trees. They clog drains and endanger wildlife that try to eat them.
Environmentalists say most of the plastic bags are nonbiodegradable and can take 450 years to decay in water and 1,000 years on land.
"Most nations recognize the problem and are making strong attempts to eliminate the use and production of plastic bags," according to a statement by the Earth Resource Foundation. "Many countries ... are attempting to eradicate plastic bags. Some are banning plastic bags altogether while others are implementing a tax on plastic bags to decrease their use."
Cities are becoming increasingly concerned about the bags because of the cost when the bags jam recycling machines or cause damage when they make their way into municipal sewer systems.
But what to do about the bags, if anything, is a community-by-community decision, said Benjamin Isgur, a Fort Worth board member of the nonprofit Texas Campaign for the Environment.
"Every city in Texas needs to be looking at this -- what the costs are in terms of litter ... and the costs to water systems and recycling programs," Isgur said. "Each city needs to address it in the best way they can for their community. For some cities, that might be a ban."
But the Earth Resource Foundation said people should act on their own as well.
"As consumers, we should not wait for our governments to tackle the problem of plastic bags," according to a statement from the foundation. "Change ultimately comes from everyone, be it from law restrictions of our government or from our own volition."
North Texas issues
An informal survey of area communities shows that many local officials are aware of the issue, but it hasn't come up for much, if any, discussion in cities such as Bedford, Colleyville, Euless and North Richland Hills.
Arlington city leaders in 2008 considered banning plastic grocery bags, which some said were a major source of litter, but never took a final vote to move forward with that plan. Some said banning the bags would better protect wildlife and the city's storm drain system, which tends to get clogged by the bags.
And in Fort Worth, city staff researched the issue in 2008, but it didn't go much farther than that even though litter in general, including plastic bags, is a problem.
"Basically, no city in Texas had done anything with it at the time," said Kim Mote, assistant director of the Code Compliance Department.
Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan said the bags can be seen blowing through the city on any given day.
But he said he doesn't believe that it's one of the issues the council must address immediately.
"I don't want to create an artificial priority," he said. "We have a lot of things going on that are good and some that are challenges, such as the budget. We can't divert our focus right now from generally keeping the city clean, keeping property values up and looking at what services we can provide."