It won't be long before the "paper or plastic" question is a thing of the past, because a significant percentage — a third at Shop N' Kart in Ashland and 90 percent at Ashland Food Co-op — are doing their bit to cut waste by bringing their own cloth bags.

It won't be long before the "paper or plastic" question is a thing of the past, because a significant percentage — a third at Shop N' Kart in Ashland and 90 percent at Ashland Food Co-op — are doing their bit to cut waste by bringing their own cloth bags.

With the co-op starting to charge 10 cents for new paper bags on Tuesday (Earth Day), it's hard to find anyone willing to pay the dime and suffer what seemed a tangible sense of embarrassment.

Typical was Ellen Falkner who brought not only several cloth "happy sacks," but was refilling bulk oils in her own jars, returning old egg cartons for recycling and reusing old paper bags she'd picked up at other stores when she forgot her cloth sack.

"It's really important to stop blowing through all these resources, because they just end up in the landfill or on garbage barges," says Falkner. "It's our Earth and our children's future and it's good to model that behavior for the kids."

Not so concerned was college student Annie Bermingham who said, while she usually brings her cloth bag, she forgot, didn't even know she was charged for the bag and "I'm indifferent. It's only 10 cents and no, I don't feel guilty."

Andrea Walker had her bags (and kids) in tow at the co-op, saying it's been months since she used a paper bag and if she does, she always brings it back to be re-used by another customer, not putting it in the recycling bin. Her cloth bag is even good for picking apples, she adds.

As part of quiet, ground-level "green" efforts, Shop N' Kart in Ashland last fall stopped giving out plastic bags and started selling cloth bags at 69 cents, running through 8,000 of them in the first two months, says manager Eric Chaddock.

"The plastic bags don't break down. Paper bags at least break down in the landfill," says Chaddock, adding that customers show great interest in reducing landfill and strain on limited resources.

With 13,000 customers a week, that's 4,300 paper bags not wasted. Each one costs 6.5 cents, meaning $279 a week is saved. It's given back to customers, who get a 4 cent credit on each cloth bag they use, says Chaddock.

Rachael McCoy of Safeway at Medford Center says plastic and paper bags are still given out, but cloth sacks sell briskly at 99 cents each. The store gives 3 cents credit for each cloth sack used. However, habits change slowly, she notes, and many people forget to bring them.

"I do see a change in consciousness, what with more focus on global warming," says McCoy, but, looking at the checkout line, about one in 20 people bring a cloth sack.

Steve Olsrud of Sherm's Thunderbird Market and Food 4 Less in Medford says they sell cloth sacks for 88 cents and they're going fast. They don't give credit for use of the bags or charge for paper bags.

"We don't charge anything we don't have to charge," Olsrud says. "We don't push people."

In recognition of Earth Day, Fred Meyer is offering three cloth bags free with any purchase over $75 and will replace them, if worn out, at any time. The sacks normally sell for 89 cents and customers get 5 cents credit for each cloth sack or recycled paper bag used, says Sharon Hamilton of the Fred Meyer North store.

When the Ashland Co-op surveyed members, 70 percent favored charging for paper and plastic bags, which cost the store 11 cents each.

"People were ready for something stronger to convince them to bring their own bags. It's achievable," says Co-op Outreach Director Annie Hoy. "Now's the time. It's happening all over the world. Some governments, like Ireland, have even outlawed paper and plastic bags."

Reducing paper and plastic bags by 50 percent will have a large impact on the $30,000 a year that the Co-op spends on bags — and that savings will be plowed into reusable bags, which cost the Co-op $2.13 and can last a long time, says Hoy.

Realizing they're going to be using cloth bags all the time for shopping, some are moving to trendy sacks like Chico Bags, which hold 20 pounds, cost $5 and come in colors.

Many who buy bags choose natural materials like canvas. Durable as Chico bags are, they are made of nylon, a synthetic fiber made using chemicals derived from fossil fuels such as coal and oil. But the manufacturer still claims that Chico Bags save several gallons of oil per year per user, and the company promises any old Chico Bags it gets will be "repurposed into door mats, dog beds and prayer flags."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.