PhotoWhen you go grocery shopping, the person bagging your groceries will normally ask, “Paper or plastic?” Many consumers don't give it much thought, and without a stated preference, the bagger is likely to use plastic, since it's cheaper.

But environmental activists are stepping up their campaign to urge consumers to always choose an alternative. The reason? Billions of those plastic bags eventually end up in landfills.

In 2008 Whole Foods banned plastic bags from its stores. Since then, some cities like San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have passed ordinances heavily restricting the use of plastic bags. Other cities are adopting recycling programs, taxes on single-use plastic bags and incentives for shoppers who bring a reusable bag with them when they go to the store.

Worldwide problem

While the U.S. produces and consumes mountains of plastic bags, it's nothing compared to the rest of the world. According to, a recycling advocacy website, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide. China, a country of 1.3 billion people, uses three billion plastic bags daily, according to China Trade News.

But switching completely to paper bags isn't a whole lot better, says. The site notes that paper bags have huge resource requirements for the manufacturing process. It says a plastic bag ban, by itself is “an emotional response” that doesn't address the main issue. 

The U.S. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) agrees. Institute President Robin Wiener recently opposed a single-use plastic bag ban, contending that recycling bags creates jobs—currently employing more than 30,000 people—and brings many other benefits to the struggling U.S. economy.

Instead of bag bans or fees, ISRI says more retailers should offer increased plastic bag collection facilities, since fewer than one percent of plastic bags used each year are recycled. Even so, the rate appears to be rising; ISRI cites 151 million pounds of bags recovered in 2011, up 19% from 2010.

Plastic bag tax

PhotoISRI splits from the activists who favor a tax or fee on plastic bags but that idea seems to be gaining momentum nationwide. A Denver city councilwoman has proposed a five-cent fee on plastic bags used in the city. Elsewhere in the state there is a plastic bag fee already in place in Aspen, Carbondale, Breckenridge and Boulder.

Some manufacturers have begun efforts to produce biodegradable plastic bags as a greener alternative to existing plastic bags. Metabolix, a company that says it is focused on producing products made from renewable resources, manufacturers a line of compostable plastic bags. Metabolix Vice President of Business and Commercial Development Bob Engle says the bags can be reused to line kitchen wastebaskets, replacing the plastic garbage bags consumers normally purchase. 

“They can then be collected in curbside municipal waste collection systems that pick up for industrial composting throughout residential communities,” Engle writes in his latest blog entry. “Furthermore, this mode encourages diversion of food waste from landfills to composters – an additional policy concern in these communities.”

Reusable bags

But activists like those at are skeptical. They say they oppose biodegradable plastic for the same reason they oppose paper. They, and others, advocate a tax on plastic bags. You can still use one, but it will cost you.

“This market-based solution discourages daily, thoughtless use of plastic bags,” the site says.

If you aren't using plastic, compostable plastic or paper bags, how then are you getting your groceries home. The most common answer is a reusable bag. For more than a decade supermarket chains have encouraged their use since they save the store money on bags.

While these bags can be good for the environment, they could be harmful to you if you don't wash them after each use. An April 2012 survey by the the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) and ConAgra Foods, found only 15% of Americans regularly wash their bags, creating a breeding zone for harmful bacteria.

"Cross-contamination occurs when juices from raw meats or germs from unclean objects come in contact with cooked or ready-to-eat foods like breads or produce," registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Ruth Frechman said at the time. "Unwashed grocery bags are lingering with bacteria which can easily contaminate your foods."

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