Thursday, February 21, 2013

Little Half Measures and Austin Weirdness

The Austin City Council last year what they call a "single-use carryout bag ordinance" whose purpose is to encourage a shift to reusable bags. It won't really affect me much, although it will reduce my grocery purchases -- most of my purchases are done when I stop into the grocery store while walking about doing other things, and there's simply no possibility that I will go out every time with a bag on the off chance that I might stop by the grocery store, and equally no possibility that I will be buying the cheap not-really-much-better-than-single-use bags at the checkout. And I think that Austinites will adjust to it pretty easily. Reusable bags are a good way to get food poisoning if you don't wash them regularly, and most of the really cheap ones will inevitably end up in the landfill, anyway, but it probably will reduce some of the plastic going into the landfill, and probably won't hurt businesses all that much.

What I find interesting about it, though, is that it is in some way a symbol of the Austin approach to environmental issues, which is, frankly, entirely laughable. All the action is in little ways that don't address the actual problems. One of the real problems in Austin, for instance, is that its recycling programs are utterly pathetic; I have never lived in a city this size in which recycling was so badly managed. This is something that Austin is attempting to fix; they finally started doing something semi-competent on the matter in October, in a plan that won't be complete until 2015. The actual reason for the ban is that Austin doesn't do any plastic bag recycling, and the bag ban is estimated at about $900,000 cheaper each year than improving the recycling program. Nothing wrong with a little calculation in this way, but it would have been a lot easier to implement if the City had been handling environmental issues in a reasonable way over the past ten or twenty years instead of jawing mindlessly about how green city policy is due to its hippy roots while doing very little of significance. It reminds one of all the endless chatter of the importance of reducing one's carbon footprint combined with zoning that guarantees that nobody can reach anything without driving, resulting in the Austin version of sprawl -- things aren't really that far apart but you're not generally going to be able to get there except by car. I suppose I am spoiled a bit; both Portland and Toronto are wonderful places for pedestrians. They aren't perfect, but they do an excellent job. But large portions of Austin, despite its pretensions, are absurdly unwalkable, and very unfriendly to bicycling.

When I think of Austin on environmental issues, I can't help but be reminded by the bike path near my apartment. It was one of those shovel-ready projects, apparently, because the City got stimulus money for it, and it still has the your-tax-dollars-at-work sign up, even though nothing has been done on it for at least nine months now. The result of this extraordinary project, meant to improve our City and stimulate our economy, was a sidewalk that starts out in the middle of a field, turns under MoPac (= Loop 1, the main artery of Austin), stops before it gets to the other side, and right before the original path really needed a sidewalk (it is thick mud for a good part of the year, and apparently will continue to be thick mud rather than hard sidewalk), starts up again on the other side of the frontage road, wanders around a bit in the middle of nowhere, and ends abruptly in the middle of nowhere. Nobody uses it because (1) given where it starts and stops (more than once), most people would never know it was there, and (2) it's an obstacle course, not a bike path. The entire city is like this. All the time. On everything.


  1. GeekLady5:05 PM

    Just for observation, I think Houston's recycling is worse, and it's a much bigger city. When we lived in Austin, we had at least some curb side recycling, but we never had any even in apartments in Houston. And the only recycling center we could find was quite a drive. It's a little better out in Spring, but only because the recycling center is more convenient. There's still no pickup.
    Austin seriously won't recycle plastic bags, though? Even here, all the grocery stores here have big bins at the entrance to drop them off for recycling.

  2. branemrys5:23 PM

    I've heard from others that Houston is very bad at recycling. I think it was ranked a few years ago as the worst recycler among the 30 largest cities in the U.S.

    The plastic bag thing gets me, too; by the city's own estimates, recycling the bags would have only cost about twice as much as the city was already spending to deal with them, and for a city with a budget of nearly $3 billion, it would not have been a significant cost. (I can understand not implementing it now, because the city is having to do some serious cutbacks. What I don't understand is why they haven't already had it for years.) But I've always been baffled by Austin's approach to recycling and other environmental issues -- the city is supposed to be environmentally conscious, but everything's done piecemeal.

  3. GeekLady6:16 PM

    I understand the whole cost issue, but it's so ubiquitous HERE of all places that I just figured Austin already did it. But I also think I understand why they don't have it. Austin sticking its collective fingers in its ears and humming when challenged by reality is pretty typical of Austin. It's much like the "keep Austin weird" campaign when Austin is really one of the most tightly regimented places I've ever lived.

  4. branemrys7:20 PM

    That summarizes Austin perfectly.

  5. GeekLady6:09 PM

    I just bought some cotton duck to make an actually useful reusable bag, washable and sturdy. I'll let you know how it turns out.
    But it's my observation that a properly packed paper or reusable bag holds a LOT more than what they put in a plastic bag. It's at least a 3-4 plastic to 1 paper ratio.
    HOA evil is all over Texas though. Ours won't let us put up play structures in our backyards without permission, and these houses aren't McMansions. Just cheap houses.


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