Paper or plastic? How about neither
When it comes to plastic bags, the answer is not blowing in the wind.
The problem is blowing in the wind, environmental advocates say.
Clogging sewers, harming wildlife, hogging space in landfills, using up fossil fuels and littering the landscape, the ubiquitous totes have no shortage of critics.
But recently, the chorus of disapproval has started moving from words to action.
Whole Foods stores and the government of China, two entities you'd never expect to see united on the tree-hugging front, took steps to reduce plastic bag use in January.
In December, San Francisco started requiring that only paper or biodegradable sacks be used in grocery stores.
And last week, the Chicago City Council began talking about requiring chain retailers with large stores to offer bag recycling or bags that decompose.
"They're a product we really don't need," said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for San Francisco's environmental department. "We didn't use them before the mid-1970s and people got along just fine without."
Westlund predicts others will follow the city's lead.
"San Francisco is right at the tipping point and I think you'll see more cities follow suit," he said.
In 2007, Illinois briefly considered requiring retailers with stores 10,000 square feet or larger to collect and recycle plastic bags.
After opposition from business interests, the policy was watered down, establishing a task force to study the issue and create a voluntary bag recycling program in Lake County. The task force is required to report back to the governor before June 2010, when it sunsets.
The goal is to get people, governments and businesses to reduce the flow of these "urban tumbleweeds" into landfills, said Peter Adrian, a recycling coordinator with the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County.
But that won't be easy, he said. "We're ingrained with the idea that you walk into a store empty-handed and walk out with bags of stuff."
There's something about a tattered plastic bag caught in the majestic limbs of an oak or elm that drives Kay McKeen to distraction.
"I'd like to get a cherry picker," said the director of DuPage County's SCARCE recycling education program. "I hate to see them hanging in the trees."
Aside from the visual pollution, plastic bags in a natural setting can harm animals or fish that eat them. In San Francisco, for example, ecologists noted cases of sea turtles dying after ingesting bags blown into the ocean.
But the city also had economic reasons for discouraging use of the totes. Cleaning up litter, removing the bags from the sewer systems and recycling machines, among other problems, cost San Francisco about $8 million a year, Westlund said.
In addition, fewer plastic bags will reduce oil consumption, many argue. The products are made of natural gas and petroleum in America.
Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags a year, according to Environment Illinois, a statewide not-for-profit environmental advocacy organization. But the number of bags being recycled is a fraction of that -- between 1 percent and 5 percent, it's estimated.
A 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study indicates 4.4 million tons of plastic bags and sacks are thrown into landfills annually. Once there, they take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose.
"Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They don't break down," environmental expert Melissa Lenczewski said.
"A landfill can heat up to 100 degrees, but it's not enough to melt the plastic. If it melts, it oozes on to everything else," said Lenczewski, an associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences at Northern Illinois University.
Representatives from the industry counter that rumors of the death of the plastic bag have been greatly exaggerated.
"The trend is toward supporting recycling, not bans," said Steven Russell, managing director of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, a coalition of chemical manufacturers.
He points to New York City and California, which are requiring large stores and chain retailers to recycle bags. New York's decision came in January; California took action in the summer of 2007.
"We're on the cusp of a real sea change," Russell said. "Plastic is a valuable resource, and we need to do whatever is needed to encourage recycling."
But scientists such as Lenczewski are skeptical. She estimated that only a small percentage of bags at certain retailers are actually recycled.
"It makes us feel good, but if they're contaminated, have pieces of paper in them or are not from the store, they're thrown away and end up in a landfill," Lenczewski said.
Russell countered that plastic recycling companies are able to accept all kinds of materials and not only produce new bags but other products, such as deck building material.
One major recycler, Virginia-based Trex Co., processes 1.5 billion grocery bags a year, to create deck planks.
Close to home, grocery chains including Dominick's and Jewel-Osco now are selling reusable bags and recycling plastic ones.
IKEA recently began charging 5 cents for its plastic bags and selling a 59-cent reusable polyethylene version.
The company donates money from the sale of its bags to reforestation, officials said.
The idea didn't sit well with customers Dennis Pipho and Sandra Morema on a recent day at the Schaumburg IKEA.
"You spend all this money and you have to pay for a bag," said Pipho, of Chicago.
A number of customers ponied up, but several left the store carrying items in their hands.
"I don't know if I agree with them, but I understand why they're doing it," said Nicole Liberto of Niles. "It's to stop people from using as many bags."
But Millie Juskevice is a convert. The Chicago woman had bought two IKEA reusable bags.
"I think it's perfect," she said. "I love it. I am all for not seeing bags in trees or down sewers. But they're also horrible to carry -- they cut your fingers."
McKeen, of SCARCE, is a cloth bag pioneer. She's been using reusable canvas totes for 17 years.
"This disposable stuff has gotten way out of hand," she said. "
But Lake County's Adrian thinks that "outright bans can be problematic."
When the recycling task force convenes in a few months it will tackle issues such as bans and curbside recycling, an option Adrian believes is viable.
"It can be done," he said. "Years ago, we were only able to recycle newspapers. I see plastic bags as the next potential recyclable product.
"It's all about education and getting people to change behavior. But it's not easy to change habits."
If Chicago does act on reducing plastic bags, it could have a ripple effect, Environment Illinois attorney Brian Granahan hopes.
"If Chicago shows leadership," he said, "it might be the state sees that as a good example to follow."
Here are some ideas to reduce your carbon footprint.
• Bring your own bags when shopping.
• If you don't own any reusable bags, IKEA, Jewel-Osco, Trader Joe's and Dominick's are a few of the vendors selling them.
• Return clean, empty plastic bags to stores that offer recycling programs.
• Purchase biodegradable bags for pet waste.
• When offered plastic bags, consider whether you really need them.
• Reuse the plastic bags you own until they're worn out.
• More than 4.4 million tons of plastic bags end up in the waste stream every year.
• Less than 6 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year.
• It takes about 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose in a landfill.
• Americans consume an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year.
• It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce 100 billion bags.
• More than a million birds and 100,000 marine animals die each year from eating or getting tangled in plastic bags.
• The average shopper takes home five to 10 bags from the grocery store.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SCARCE, Northern Illinois University, Environment Illinois