Is plastic OK? More and more, the answer is "no." Across Central Florida, consumers are taking small steps to wean themselves from disposable plastic bags. And many companies are trying to encourage it. Grocery and big-box stores now sell durable shopping bags near checkout counters. Some are starting to charge for throwaway plastic bags. And grocer Whole Foods will soon ban them altogether.
During the past few years, flimsy, disposable plastic bags have become a retailing pariah. Environmentalists decry them for littering parks and waterways and piling up in landfills, where they will take almost 1,000 years to break down. The bags are also made from nonrenewable and valuable resources: natural gas and oil.
Some consumers say the bags end up either cluttering their homes or being quickly discarded. As a result, more shoppers are turning to durable canvas bags as an alternative.
Adrienne Lashinsky, 39, of Sanford, who was shopping recently with her husband and three children at Whole Foods in Winter Park, is among them.
"We were just choking on the plastic bags so . . . this is just as easy," Lashinsky said after filling several of her cloth bags with the family's grocery haul.
Lashinsky said she made the switch because it is "better for the environment" and uses "less foreign oil."
Billions thrown away
Still, Americans have a long way to go before they rid themselves of their dependency on plastic bags. Introduced in the late 1970s as a lightweight and cheaper alternative to paper bags, polyethylene bags now make up four of every five bags handed out at grocery stores.
The Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, estimates that Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year, with less than 1 percent of them recycled.
Paper bags aren't considered much better, given they also use up resources and take up more space than plastic bags in landfills.
"Previously it was paper versus plastic, but frankly neither option is ideal," said Jenny Powers, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group. "People don't realize that to produce paper bags, it is a very energy-intensive process. It takes trees, paper and water."
Many big chains are recognizing the environmental benefits of offering reusable bags and the marketing advantages of touting a green-friendly option. Further, retailers gain revenue from selling "green" bags instead of paying to supply free disposable ones.
Albertsons says it has sold "tens of thousands" of durable bags since introducing them in September. The bags sell for $1 on racks near checkouts. Mega-retailers Wal-Mart and Target also introduced durable totes last year.
Wal-Mart, which started selling its $1 reusable bags in October, estimates each durable bag will eliminate the need for at least 50 disposable plastic bags over a five-year period. The company said it will avoid having to produce 100 million disposable bags if its sells out of its 2 million durable bags.
Wal-Mart spokesman Michael Mills said its eco-bags -- emblazoned with "Paper or plastic? Neither" -- are selling well.
Swedish home-furnishing retailer IKEA, which opened a store in Orlando in November, charges 5 cents for its plastic bags (durable bags can be purchased for 59 cents). The company estimates it handed out 70 million disposable plastic bags in the U.S. in 2006, the year before it adopted its new policy.
Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets now sells durable bags for 99 cents near its checkout lanes.
"Customer demand has been great," Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said. Stevens would not say how many durable bags have been sold. Publix doesn't plan to do away with plastic bags, Stevens said, and offers recycling of the bags at its stores.
"If customers want to have plastic, that option will remain there," Stevens said.
Luigi Seta, 53, of Orlando said he has come to rely on disposable plastic.
Hard habit to break
"I think I'm being lazy to not buy the old-fashioned [durable bags]," Seta said after shopping at Publix in the Baldwin Park neighborhood in Orlando. Seta, who says he got by without disposable plastic or paper bags when living in South America, noted that he has become accustomed to them since moving to the U.S.
"It's a cultural thing we need to break," he said.
Efforts to do that are under way. Last year, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit petroleum-based plastic grocery bags. New York City passed a law requiring stores that hand out plastic bags to take them back for recycling. Other U.S. cities have considered similar legislation.
Whole Foods said it will stop handing out plastic bags as of April 22 -- Earth Day.
"The main issues with plastic bags is that they are petro-based, and they are really harmful to wildlife," said Lauressa Nelson, a marketing specialist at Whole Foods in Winter Park.
The natural-foods retailer will continue to hand out free paper bags, which are made entirely from recycled paper, and it sells durable totes ranging in price from 99 cents to $8.
Mark Chediak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5240. Laura Brost can be reached at 407-420-6063 or email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun