The world consumes hundreds of billions of single-use plastic bags each year. Environmental activists say they are difficult to recycle, wasteful and damage the biosphere. They want to ban plastic bags or -- as many communities have done -- charge a fee for them at the register. But the plastic bag industry defends their use, saying people reuse plastic bags, and industry officials argue recycling is a matter of personal responsibility and should not be regulated.
City officials say New Yorkers use 5.2 billion plastic bags each year. They are offered free with nearly every supermarket, pharmacy or convenience store purchase. Many people like them, even if they sometimes feel guilty about using them.
"They're easy to use, they're lightweight, and they're easy to store," said one man.
"I don't feel good about it, but I use them sometimes because it's convenient," said a woman shopper.
But what happens to those bags after they’ve been used is a huge environmental problem, said Lilly Belanger of noimpactproject.org.
"They are found on beaches. They are found clogging storm drains. They are caught in trees. They are swallowed by marine life. And once that happens, we actually eat marine life. What's bad for the planet is almost always bad for us," said Belanger.
Plastic bags are made of petroleum products and natural gas, and do not biodegrade. And, Berenger added, they are difficult to recycle. So New York City spends nearly $10 million dollars a year to send 100-thousand tons of plastic bags to landfills out of state.
Attorney Jennie Romer of PlasticBagLaws.org helps craft state and local legislation to either ban plastic bags or charge a fee for their use. She said nearly 150 American municipalities have already done so, to good effect.
"In Washington, D.C., a five percent charge on all single-use bags led to about a 60 percent reduction and in Los Angeles County in California, a ban on plastic bags and a 10 cent charge on paper bags led to a 95 percent reduction in single-bag use overall," said Romer.
Environmental activists and some New York City Council members are proposing a law to charge 10 cents for single-use plastic bags. That is government overreach, said Mark Daniels of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry trade group. He spoke with VOA via Skype.
"It's your personal responsibility as well. If you shop at a convenience store and buy a pack of gum and a Coke, it does not necessarily need a plastic bag. You can refuse that," said Daniels.
Jennie Romer counters that people usually don't refuse a free convenience. "But with a 10 cent charge on bags, customers are much more likely to stop and think about whether they need a bag or not. And that's really all that these laws are doing," said Romer.
Mark Daniels said most people reuse plastic bags at home, and limiting the use of American made bags will cost jobs in the plastic bag manufacturing sector and recycling centers.
Environmental groups are racing to put an increasing number of plastic bag fee proposals on ballots and before city and state legislators, as the federal government reports a dramatic rise in the number of plastic bags Americans use each year.