"Paper or plastic?" It's a question that's confounded ecoconscious shoppers for decades. But is it the right question? Imagine how your response might start to change if baggers instead asked, "Did you bring your bags today?" Here, we highlight what's at stake and how a small, simple change like carrying reusable bags can make a big, positive impact.
Easy ways to use fewer plastic (and paper) bags
Invest in reusable shopping bags. The latest ultracompact bags, made from ripstop nylon, are inexpensive and easily stow in a purse or pocket. Another bonus: Many stores offer a 5-cent per-bag credit.
Refuse a bag. Cashiers are often on autopilot, bagging even single items. If you don't need a bag, tell them.
Reuse plastic bags. They make great garbage-can liners, pet waste bags, soggy athletic wear (or swimsuit) holders …
Did you know?
Plastic bags don't biodegrade; they photodegrade—breaking down into toxic bits that contaminate soil and waterways, eventually entering the food chain.
Plastic bags are difficult to recycle or compost.
Paper bags aren't necessarily better. They take more energy to produce and to transport because they're bulkier. If you must have a bag, the best option is one made from recycled paper.
Plastic bags were widely introduced in the United States about 30 years ago.
By the numbers
88 billion+ plastic bags are used each year in the United States.
12 million barrels of oil are used to produce the bags the U.S. uses annually.
Less than 1 percent of plastic bags get recycled in the U.S., according to Worldwatch Institute.
Up to 1,000 years is the estimated length of time it takes for a plastic bag to decompose.
At home: San Francisco and nearby Oakland enacted the first U.S. plastic-bag bans last spring. (Rules apply to larger groceries and drugstores.) U.S. cities considering similar measures: Boston; Baltimore; Annapolis, Maryland; Portland, Oregon; Santa Monica and Santa Cruz, California; and Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Around the world: Countries that already have banned—or taken action to discourage—plastic-bag use include Australia, Bangladesh, France, India, Italy, South Africa, Kenya, and Taiwan. In Ireland, plastic-bag use has dropped by more than 90 percent since the country instituted a roughly 20-cent per-bag "plastax" in 2002.