July 17, 2023

Council Looking To Discontinue Garbage Bag Distribution

For as long as anyone can remember (historical documentation points to 1971), the City has distributed rolls of garbage bags to every residence a few times a year.  The rationale for this program is to facilitate compliance with a provision of our Solid Waste Code requiring plastic bags be of a certain minimum thickness to prevent leaks.  These are thicker than your typical grocery store bag, and because the City buys them in bulk we can get them cheaper than if residents had to go out and buy them on their own.  The cost is passed on through the solid waste rate on our monthly utility bills.

However, the traditional reasoning behind the program no longer holds up.  Whatever may have been the case decades ago, today’s grocery store bags are stronger than they used to be, even if still thinner.  Many Bellaire households don’t use the City-supplied bags at all, and Public Works doesn’t enforce the thickness requirement, because it simply hasn’t been an issue.

At current pricing, the City spends $100,000 annually buying garbage bags.  Add in the labor and fuel it takes to deliver them to homes three times a year and it’s closer to $140,000.  That works out to around $6 per roll of 35 bags, not counting the intangible and harder-to-quantify administrative overhead costs.  Not a bad deal for bags of this quality, but it probably doesn’t make sense to keep doing it if we’re abandoning the thickness requirement as continued justification for the program.

As of now, the City Council has authorized a purchase order for one more round of garbage bags this fiscal year, to be delivered around August.  For next fiscal year, pursuant to Council direction the City Manager has eliminated the expense line item from her proposed budget (which, incidentally, she’ll be presenting to Council and the public tonight), but of course it will ultimately be Council’s decision whether to add it back in.  The corresponding revenues—i.e., that portion of the solid waste utility rate that funds the expense—are reduced as well, although utility rates overall are rising amid persistent inflation.

Note that staff are planning to proceed next year with a deep dive into the costs of providing utility services, as a follow-on to our 2021 user fee and cost allocation study, the scope of which did not include utility rates.  This project was budgeted but not undertaken in FY 2023, so it will be carried forward to next year’s budget.  The results may shed additional light on the economics of our garbage bag distribution program, for future Council decision making.

We recognize there are likely a great many residents who prefer the City-supplied bags over store bought, and would rather we continue delivering them (candidly, I count myself among that group).  Assuming we stay on course to terminate the program, there will still be a bit of a transition period as we’ll have plenty of rolls available for sale at the Utility Billing service window at City Hall, for those who would like to stock up.  Council has also expressed a willingness to monitor and see how things play out, and potentially revisit the issue if it makes sense to do so and depending on public feedback.  Questions and concerns may be sent to pw@bellairetx.gov.