AUSTRALIA and China are phasing them out, Germany and Ireland tax them, but in the United States, the plastic shopping bag is still king.
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 US cities and states have made moves to cut that number and Whole Foods Market, a supermarket pitched at the organic and natural food shopper, said it would phase out plastic bags by Earth Day, April 22. But critics say the US is years behind countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Plastic bags, favoured because they are durable and cheap, have been blamed for clogging drains, filling landfills, and choking wildlife. They can take from 400 to 1000 years to break down, and their constituent chemicals remain in the environment long after that, environmental groups say. They are made from crude oil, natural gas and other petrochemical derivatives; an estimated 12 million barrels of oil are used to make the bags the US consumes each year.
Countries from Taiwan to Uganda, and cities including Dhaka in Bangladesh, have either banned plastic bags outright or imposed a levy on consumers, and Australia is aiming to phase them out.
Ireland charges shoppers 22 euro cents (37 Australian cents) per bag, a move credited with cutting their use by 90%. Some European cities 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 could eliminate them altogether.
But in the US, 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, New York.
"The mentality in America is plastic bags come from plastic bag land," said the Worldwatch Institute's Lisa Mastny. "We don't think about where they come from and where they are going."
A woman dries plastic bags for recycling on the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where authorities have clamped down on bag use.
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