In U.S., plastic shopping bag still rules

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

Carol Valdes takes a nap while shopping at Toys R Us at Times Square in New York, November 24, 2006. Australia and China are phasing them out, Germany and Ireland tax them, but in the United States, the plastic shopping bag is still king. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

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 at a newsstand, 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 in the country. Most of them are thrown away.

A handful of U.S. cities and states have made moves to cut that number and Whole Foods Market, a supermarket pitched at the organic and natural food shopper, on Tuesday said it would phase out plastic bags out by Earth Day on April 22. But critics say the United States is years behind countries in 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 the U.S. consumes each year.

Countries from Taiwan to Uganda, and cities including Dacca in Bangladesh, have either 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 ($0.29 cents) per bag, a move credited with reducing plastic bag use by 90 per cent. Some European cities first imposed fees as early as the 1980s.

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

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But in the United States, the 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 Pathmark supermarket in Brooklyn, a borough of New York city.

Kaitlyn Tycek, pushing a shopping cart full of groceries in plastic bags, said they are 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 the right incentives such as discounts for customers 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 reusable 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.

A law already enacted in California and one just passed in New York City requires stores to set up recycling programs, but critics say they have little faith that shoppers use them.

The average American family of four throws away about 1,500 bags a year, and less than one percent of bags are recycled, according to Swedish furniture giant Ikea. Last March, Ikea introduced a 5-cent charge for each disposable plastic bag, which it credited with cutting usage by a 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 outright bans lead to a return to paper bags, which cause their own environmental problems. It takes more energy to recycle a paper bag than a plastic bag, 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. supermarket chain that offers recycling containers and 2 cents back for customers who reuse plastic bags.

Tara Raddohl, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailer, said its U.S. stores had recycling containers and has begun selling reusable bags for $1. She declined to say whether there was a specific target for reducing usage like its British subsidiary, Asda.

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.”

Reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Eddie Evans