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Plastic bags waste a material world

Paper or plastic? How about cloth?

Marvie Boothman, for one, brought a canvas tote to Medford's Food 4 Less on her Thursday grocery run.

"It saves on the garbage that winds up in the dump," the Cave Junction woman says. "The more we can save from going into the environment, we do."

Boothman's mother, Glenda Boothman, says too many people don't think about where the ubiquitous little things — they're known by the rather troublesome name of "single-use bags" — go after they're used.

"The bad thing about plastic is that it takes forever to decompose," she says.

Five hundred to 1,000 years by some estimates. Nobody really knows.

But perceptions of the bags are changing. The Ashland Albertsons just banned them. In Medford, Food 4 Less is selling blue totes from its sister store, Thunderbird Market, because the ones with Food 4 Less' signature black-and-yellow design have been flying off the racks, and they're sold out.

"We just bought four pallets of them," says Food 4 Less Assistant Manager Jared Mulhollen. "Thousands of them. The demand is way up."

To gauge decomposition, scientists measure the carbon dioxide objects give off in a microbe-rich environment. Vegetable scraps might take a few days to decompose. Newspapers take months, a tin can perhaps 100 years. With polyethylene bags, no CO2 is released. Microorganisms don't recognize the petroleum-based product as food, and the bags just sit there.

And the world is awash in the things. More than 1 million are handed out every minute of the day, between 500 billion and 1 trillion a year, more than 100 billion in the United States alone. According to the nonprofit Clean Air Council, each billion means 300,000 tons of waste. Before it banned the bags, San Francisco figured its cost of handling them at 17 cents each.

Plastic bags clutter city streets, line the world's beaches, festoon the deserts and pollute the oceans, where they break into countless tiny pieces and enter the food chain, killing animals from sea turtles to albatrosses to dolphins.

Although stores here and elsewhere offer recycling, fewer than 10 percent of the bags get recycled, and the process is a nightmare. Recyclers say the bags foul up recycling machinery, driving up labor costs. Many stores ­— Food 4 Less is one — give customers a small credit (5 cents) for each paper bag they re-use, but nothing for plastic bags.

Many California cities have banned the bags, and bans seem to be on tap from Eugene to Boston to Brownsville, Texas. Nations that have enacted or are moving toward bans include the U.K., Norway, Belgium, Spain, Italy, China, Bangladesh (where the bags have caused flooding), Thailand, Hong Kong and even African nations such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo.

Portland banned plastic bags' use by big grocers and big-box stores in October. But unlike the ban passed in Seattle last month, the Portland measure didn't impose a fee on alternatives, so many shoppers will simply substitute paper (Seattle charges 5 cents per paper bag).

The Northwest Grocery Association actually supported Seattle's 2011 ban, preferring one statewide standard to a patchwork of partial bans. But the trade group's website is full of generalities that spell out no position but seem to suggest waiting. Plastic-bag manufacturers and industry's main trade group, the American Chemistry Association, oppose bans.

Oregon nearly became the first state to ban the bags statewide last year, but the measure (SB 536) fell just short. It, too, was opposed by the industry, which portrayed it as "Big Brother" legislation. At Food 4 Less, Mulhollen says he's OK with a ban, adding that he's speaking for himself.

"It's fine with us," he says. "Maybe it would even help the wood products industry."

There's really no excuse for delays. Unlike more vexing environmental problems, this is an easy fix. In Ireland, a deposit of 15 cents cut use of the bags by 90 percent in less than a decade. Paper bags, while they have their own footprint, are less harmful than plastic.

And there are vegetable-based plastics now. There are even polyethylene products that degrade. Indiana-based Mono Sol makes water-soluble laundry bags that can be thrown with the clothes right into the washer, where they dissolve.

In a sign of the times, several Food 4 Less shoppers carrying plastic bags declined to give their names. A woman who identified herself only as Lynette doesn't want to be identified with a stigmatized product.

"It might make somebody think they're a better person than you," she says.

Donna Walker, of Central Point, brought her canvas totes — and left them in the car.

"I keep forgetting them," she says with an embarrassed shake of the head. "It drives me crazy."

She says the issue is a "two-way street" in that the bags undeniably have some practical uses. They make dandy poop-scoopers for dog walkers and kitty litter totes for cat fanciers. Still, she thinks concern for the environment must win out.

"You just have to get in the habit," she says. "And think why you're doing it."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.