Plastic Bags an Issue for Green-Friendly Grocers

NEW YORK -- Australia and China are phasing them out, Germany and Ireland tax them, but in the United States, the plastic bag is still king.

Outside supermarkets across the country, Americans push shopping carts laden with a dozen or more plastic bags full of groceries to their cars. Even the smallest purchase, such as a magazine , seems to come in a plastic bag.

Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year, according to Washington-based think tank Worldwatch Institute, or more than 330 a year for every person. Most of them are thrown away.

A handful of U.S. cities and states have moved to cut that number, and Whole Foods Market, a supermarket aimed at the organic and natural food shopper, said Tuesday it would phase out plastic bags out by Earth Day on April 22. But critics say the United States is years behind Europe, Asia and Africa.

"We are still in the stage of taking baby steps," said Eric Goldstein, a director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group.

Plastic bags, favored because they are durable and cheap, have been blamed for clogging drains, filling landfills and choking wildlife. They can take from 400 to 1,000 years to break down, and their constituent chemicals remain in the environment long after that, environmental groups say.

Made from crude oil, natural gas and other petrochemical derivatives, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil are used to make the bags for the U.S. each year.

Countries from Taiwan to Uganda, and cities including Dacca in Bangladesh, have banned plastic bags outright or impose a levy on consumers. Australia aims to phase them out by the end of this year, and China by June 21.

Ireland charges shoppers 22 euro cents (29 cents) per bag, a move credited with reducing plastic bag use by 90 percent. Some European cities first imposed fees as early as the 1980s.

In Britain, which uses 13 billion of the bags a year, or more than 200 per person, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has urged the country's supermarket chains to cut use faster than planned and said Britain can eliminate them altogether.

But the U.S. federal government has been reluctant to impose measures that would interfere with competition and be unpopular with consumers.

"Pay for bags? I think we have to pay for enough," said Melvin Perry, a shopper with four or five bags in each hand coming out of a New York supermarket.

Kaitlyn Tycek, pushing a cart full of groceries in plastic bags, said they were so thin that items must be double- and triple-bagged to avoid splitting.

"They end up using three or four bags. They are pointless," said Tycek, who said she would switch to reusable cloth bags given incentives like discounts for people who bring their own bags.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency encourages reduced use, but does not say how it should be done. "Like most waste management decisions, this is one that is made on the local level," said spokeswoman Roxanne Smith.

While cloth bags have gained pockets of popularity, cashiers at most supermarkets still offer "paper or plastic" and the answer is as often as not "plastic."

The few local governments that have taken up the cause favor recycling programs rather than taxes or outright bans.

Laws in California and New York City require stores to set up recycling programs, but critics have little faith shoppers use them.

The average American family of four throws away about 1,500 bags a year, and less than 1 percent of bags are recycled, according to Swedish furniture giant Ikea. Last March, Ikea introduced a 5 cent charge for each plastic bag, which it credited with cutting usage in half.

San Francisco became the first and only U.S city to impose an outright ban on plastic grocery bags in April, but the ban is limited to large supermarkets. The state of New Jersey is mulling phasing out plastic bags by 2010.

"It is a pretty dismal situation," said Lisa Mastny of the Worldwatch Institute.

The U.S. plastics and supermarket industries say bans lead to a return to paper bags, which cause their own environmental problems. It takes more energy to recycle paper than plastic bags, according to the plastics industry.

"You have to ask what is the objective? If it is for the environment, then you are not going to achieve that goal," said Karen Meleta, spokeswoman for ShopRite, a U.S. chain that offers recycling containers and 2 cents back for customers who reuse plastic bags.

But environmentalists say recycling and rebates do not curb use and it is up to all levels of government to encourage reduction. "They need to set up convenient mechanisms for that public shift to happen," Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

In pockets of the United States, the reusable cloth shopping bag has become popular and even trendy, but in most supermarkets cashiers still offer "Paper or plastic?" And, as often as not, the answer is "plastic."

"The mentality in America is plastic bags come from plastic bag land," said Mastny, of the Worldwatch Institute. "We don't think about where they come from and where they are going."