Just when plastic bags seemed to have won the contest for customer preference against their chief competitor, paper, a movement has sprung up in Maryland and around the country to disqualify the petroleum-based plastics on environmental grounds.
Indeed, those ubiquitous flimsy shopping sacks are a scourge on the landscape, particularly in waterfront communities such as Annapolis and Baltimore, where officials are considering banning plastic bags largely because of the impact on waterfowl and marine life.
The remedy, though, is not a directed verdict for paper - which comes with its own set of environmental negatives - but forsaking disposable bags entirely. Conscientious consumers, aided by responsible merchants, should discipline themselves to shop as much as possible with reusable totes, and recycle plastic as well as paper when totes are too impractical.
The case against plastic is well made. The bags are made from oil, a scarce resource upon which the nation is far too dependent. They linger almost forever in landfills. And as litter, the feather-light plastic bags simply take flight, winding up in trees or billowing along in waterways, where they are mistaken for jellyfish and tie up the insides of creatures that try to make them a meal.
But heavier paper bags require more energy to produce and transport, thus creating more pollution. A third option is needed.
Damage from plastic bags could be minimized simply by boosting their recycling rate in this country, now at a pitiful 5 percent. They can be included in residential recycling bins, in some places serving as wrapping for recycled newspapers, or can be returned to grocery stores for reuse or recycling there. Giant Food, for example, shaves 3 cents off the grocery bill for each bag that makes a second or third trip home, and also collected enough returned bags in bins outside its stores last year to see 3 million pounds of plastic converted into backyard decks.
By far the preferable approach is to minimize the use of plastic and paper bags as much as possible. Debates now going in the Annapolis and Baltimore city councils can be most valuable if they educate consumers about how much difference they can make through such simple gestures as bringing along an empty tote when they shop.
Annapolis is planning to distribute such totes to each of its households. Merchants, desperate to avoid a costly plastic ban, should help by promoting tote use. Prohibition isn't always the best answer.