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That inevitable question at the checkout counter - "Paper or plastic?" - is evolving. Soon, it may be, "Paper, or did you bring you own?"
Whole Foods Markets will stop offering plastic grocery bags by Earth Day on April 22, giving customers a choice between recycled paper or reusable bags.
Big Y Foods has begun using a stronger, reinforced plastic bag that it hopes will reduce its plastic bag use by as much as 20 percent.
And, Stop & Shop, which like other establishments offers recycling containers for consumers to return their lastic bags, is encouraging customers to try its reusable - and green - grocery sacks.
It is part of a growing consensus that the ubiquitous plastic bags, which all too often end up as roadside litter, can no longer be used with a clear conscience.
Val A. Hoistion, of West Springfield, is among the consumers who are going "green" when it comes to bagging their groceries.
"It avoids the mess of having lots of plastic bags all over the place, and it's a way to help with the pollution problem caused by the plastic bags," she said.
"Plastic is made from petroleum, and, over the last couple of years, there's been an increasing awareness that our use of petroleum is wasteful and excessive, and while we can't snap our fingers and make all plastic bags disappear tomorrow, what Whole Foods is doing is a first good step to using less of them," said Janet S. Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, an environmental lobbying group.
Indeed, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic shopping bags. Boston and New York are considering bans, and New Jersey is looking to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags for large grocery chains and big-box stores in the next two years.
China, where an estimated 3 billion are used every day, wants to outlaw their manufacture, starting in June.
And, in Ireland, when they were taxed at checkout counters, use of the bags reportedly fell by 94 percent - within weeks.
Whole Foods, which maintains almost 270 stores in this country, Canada, and Great Britain, including a store in Hadley, estimates its action will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of the waste stream by year's end.
"More and more cities and countries are beginning to place serious restrictions on single-use plastic shopping bags, since they don't break down in our landfills, can harm nature by clogging waterways and endangering wildlife, and litter our roadsides," said A.C. Gallo, Whole Foods' chief operating officer.
At Big Y, which has 55 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, the goal is to reduce the use of plastic bags by 20 percent with a stronger reinforced plastic bag, called the Hippo Sak. This allows more items to be carried in one bag, said Janet Rankin, manager of customer services.
Instead of the national average of 3.4 items for the typical plastic bag, the Hippo Sak can hold 10 to 12 items and up to 26 pounds without breaking, according to the bag's maker, Crown Poly.
"So there's a great reduction of the plastic that's going into the landfill," said Rankin. "But it's our goal to get customers to return them so they don't go into the landfill. The bags that are returned are recycled. The plastic is turned into decking."
Hippo Sak is also being used by smaller grocers such as the Atkins Farm Market in Amherst. Big Y stores are also selling reusable bags and freezer bags.
Stop & Shop, which has almost 390 stores in six northeastern states, including Massachusetts, continues to encourage use of its own and other reusable bags. But it also continues to offer paper bags and conventional plastic bags.
"However, we do accept the plastic bags back for recycling at bins in our stores; they are eventually recycled into manmade lumber," said spokesman Robert E. Keane.
While many shoppers have adopted the use of reusable bags, the clear preference of environmentalists, most shoppers have not.
Bernard J. Bushey, the manager of Armata's Super Market in Longmeadow, said, "Quite a few, maybe 20 percent of customers, are requesting paper bags, and some, maybe 5 percent, are bringing in their own bags. But maybe 75 percent of customers will request plastic bags."
Shopper Hoistion said she has found the reusable bags can hold as much if not more than regular plastic bags."I can put like three full cartons of yogurt in these," she said pointing to a bright-green reusable bag hanging from her shopping cart. "I just love them."
Staff writer Elizabeth Román contributed to this report.
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