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Plastic bag use under scrutiny in many U.S. locations

By Adam Blank, CNN
  • Cost estimate vote may put Austin, Texas, closer to plastic bag ban
  • California's plastic ban measure gains support
  • Annual paper and plastic bag waste equals 24 jumbo jets in weight
  • Prior to China's ban, an estimated 3 billion plastic bags were used on a daily basis

(CNN) -- Shoppers in Austin, Texas may wind up losing the right to use plastic at the checkout line -- and that doesn't mean credit cards.

In what is starting to become a trend in environmentally-conscious cities nationwide, plastic bags at grocery stores throughout Austin could become a thing of the past.

The Austin City Council is set to vote Thursday on a resolution directing its city manager to determine how much taxpayers pay for processing plastic bags, from the bags' manufacture to their final destination. The manager's report is due in September, a possible first step toward banning the bags in grocery stores.

The bill is sponsored by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, along with two additional City Council members.

Three years ago, Leffingwell led an initiative to cut the number of bags entering Austin's circulation by encouraging shoppers to carry reusable bags. But not enough people participated.

"What we tried was partially successful," Leffingwell told CNN Wednesday.

When asked if he would consider an outright ban of plastic bags in his city, the mayor said it hasn't yet reached that point, but "we're open to the possibility."

Austin wouldn't be the first place to ponder the benefits of eliminating plastic bags at grocery and drug stores.

The California Assembly passed legislation earlier this month prohibiting retailers, which include grocery, liquor and convenience stores, from offering plastic bags.

The California measure, which still needs state Senate approval, was written by California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica.

"We had to work hard to win passage for the bill in the Assembly and I anticipate an equally hard battle in the Senate," Brownley told CNN Wednesday. "Nasty habits, like our reliance on plastic and paper bags, are hard to break."

Brownley has been fighting to reduce plastic bag waste for three years, calling single-use bags "an unnecessary scourge that blows like urban tumbleweeds into every corner of the earth."

Her bill has recently gained support from the California Grocers Association, which decided to back the bill after Brownley agreed to subject all stores that sell groceries to the ban.

"Our hope is the consumer is driven towards reusable bags", says Dave Hanley, vice president of the grocers association. "We have a huge responsibility to educate consumers."

However, Hanley told CNN he's acutely aware of the speed bumps the legislation might present along the road to passage.

For instance, he said, the bill requires grocery stores to sell reusable bags for at least 5 cents if customers don't bring their own.

"With the economy, there's always the concern when legislation has fees," Hanley said.

So just how much plastic and paper bag waste do we produce a year?

According to Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Catherine Milbourn, 3.96 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were generated in 2008 in the United States alone. That's compared to 1.17 million tons of waste generated by paper bags and sacks that same year.

And of that, what's being recycled?

A combined total of 830,000 tons of plastic and paper bags were recycled in 2008, while a combined total of 4.3 million tons were discarded, according to the EPA -- the equivalent, speaking in terms of weight, of nearly 24 jumbo jets.

Cities such as Austin aren't the only ones in the United States enacting and considering laws on plastic bag use -- Seattle, Washington; Dallas, Texas; and Portland, Oregon, just to name a few, have all considered the environmental impact of plastic bag distribution. Leffingwell told CNN he spoke to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom several years ago on the issue.

And then there's the global initiative currently underway. Several cities in China, Africa, Australia, India and Ireland have all imposed bans or surcharges on plastic bags.

Prior to China's ban, an estimated 3 billion plastic bags were used on a daily basis, creating more than 3 million tons of garbage each year, according to the website World Watch Institute, an independent research organization which has programs that focus on areas such as the climate, energy, food and agriculture.