They're caught up in trees, squirreled away in kitchen pantries and floating along with the ocean's current. They're plastic bags — among the 84 billion that Americans use each year — and heightened public awareness is punching a hole in their popularity.
Leading natural and organic retailers such as Seattle's PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, have taken up the cause by banning or phasing out the use of plastic bags. More surprising is the strong response coming from politicians and local governments. In March, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning plastic bags from large-scale supermarkets and drug stores. The city instead gave these retailers the option of using compostable bags and recyclable paper bags.
“Hopefully, other cities and other states will follow suit,” city supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who forwarded the bill, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.
And so they have — though not to the extent of imposing an outright ban. Last month, New York City passed a resolution requiring supermarkets of 5,000 square feet or more in size, or with five or more locations in the city, to provide in-store recycling bins for plastic bags. The same week, China imposed a ban on ultra-thin plastic bags and a fee on all other varieties. The state department there urged citizens to instead use cloth sacks and baskets to carry groceries.
Australia is one place that's currently weighing a decision. Prime Minister Peter Garrett recently said he wants his country, like China, to scale down the use of free plastic bags, possibly starting later this year.
For Australia and others, the final verdict on plastic bags falls to one of three options. One is recycling, which is the most-retailer-friendly choice, since it lets stores continue to offer low-cost plastic bags for their customers' convenience. But critics argue that recycling won't keep most consumers from continuing to trash the bags they use — and they note that plastic never gets fully recycled.
Another option is to follow San Francisco's example and completely ban plastic bags. Some groups say that just shifts the burden, though — often to paper bags, which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, require more petroleum to produce than plastic bags.
“At a certain point, do we just go and tell people that a plastic bag is bad, and so the consumer behavior moves to just using as many paper bags as possible?” asked Tim James, local government relations manager with the California Grocers Association, which supports a recycling program akin to what New York instituted. “You haven't accomplished any bag reduction, and you haven't really increased bag reuse.”
A third possibility — one that's gaining popularity — is to charge those who want to use plastic bags. Ireland started doing this nearly six years ago, requiring consumers to pay a 15-cent fee if they wanted to go with plastic. The result? Ireland's “plastax” reduced plastic bag use by 94% within one year.