That standard checkout-line question, "Plastic or paper?" could be rendered moot in the state capital and Baltimore under ordinances being proposed to reduce litter and protect the environment.
The Baltimore and Annapolis city councils are scheduled to hear legislation that would outlaw common plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, clothing shops and other retailers.
"Banning plastic is the right way to go. We can live without plastic checkout bags," said the sponsor of the Annapolis ordinance, Alderman Samuel E. Shropshire.
In taking up the paper-vs.-plastic question, Baltimore and Annapolis are joining a handful of cities questioning the wisdom of widespread use of the bags.
Boston; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., are also considering bans. In April, San Francisco became the first city to enact a partial ban on certain types of plastic bags.
Supporters of the bans say that manufacturing plastic bags squanders nonrenewable resources such as natural gas and crude oil - upward of 12 million barrels of oil each year.
Add to that the nuisance of the bags blowing along roads or hanging from trees, and the danger they present to aquatic life when they end up in waterways.
Those in the pro-plastic camp contend that the bags are not only reusable and recyclable, but are a better environmental choice and require comparatively little space in landfills. And plastic bags are also much cheaper.
Baltimore's ordinance, to be submitted Monday night by Councilman James B. Kraft, would ban non-biodegradable bags in grocery stores and pharmacies - but not other retailers. Plastic bags made of corn starch would be permitted.
"Very frankly, I don't think it will pass first time out. This will die before we can vote on it, but what it will do is open discussion so we can come back in the next term," Kraft said.
Under the proposed Annapolis ordinance, scheduled to be introduced July 9, all stores would have to issue recyclable paper bags, or customers would have to provide their own reusable bags. Retailers would face up to $500 in fines for issuing plastic bags.
Shropshire said San Francisco's law, which covers only large retailers and allows plastic bags made of corn starch, didn't go far enough.
"What we need for the improvement of the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries is some radical legislation," he said. "Annapolis needs to set an example as the capital city and look at new alternatives."
Though he predicts passage of his bill, other city leaders aren't so sure.
"This appears to be one of those silly, whimsical pieces of legislation. So like now, we're going to have the plastic bag police?" said Alderman David Cordle. "We have more pressing problems with storm water runoff, erosion and growing greener to help with the air. Getting into the minutia of plastic bags is beyond our scope."
Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said, "We are an environmentally sensitive city. I'm not sure if it would be the majority of the council backing the bill, but there probably could be if there is a real big environmental plus."
"But the limited info I have is that there's a marginal difference environmentally between the two" types of bags, she said.
Shropshire plans to meet with environmental groups next week to lobby for support. But the proposal is unlikely to win much support among retailers in Annapolis.
"I think I understand where they are coming from with oil and pollution and the environment, but I don't thinks it's been very well thought out on the retailer side," said Chris Evans, manager of the Annapolis Graul's Market.
"If we had to switch to all paper, there would be a serious outcry. People want the choice."
Switching would be costly. The paper bags at Graul's cost about 9 cents each, compared with 2 cents for plastic. And plastic bags take up about a tenth of the storage space paper containers use, he said.
Up until the mid-1970s, paper bags were the only option around the country. Since then, plastic bags - often double bagged - have become an American checkout-line staple.
They are stuffed in pantries, dragged out to pack sandwiches or to discard cat litter, and used to line small garbage cans.
Each year, customers run through more than 100 billion plastic bags, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which stresses recycling and reusing but doesn't take sides in the bag debate.
Of those billions of plastic bags, roughly 5 percent end up recycled, with the rest in landfills or as litter.
A Greenpeace study of the world's oceans found damage to marine life from plastic bags. Turtles sometimes mistake them for food, and "trash vortexes" filled with swirling plastic bags sometimes form underwater.
But the organization doesn't take a stance on either bagging product.
"It's a difficult debate because there are environmental impacts related to both. We recommend using cloth bags whenever possible," said Jane Kochersperger, a Greenpeace spokeswoman.
"If you have to use plastic, recycle and reuse," she recommended.
Some say the move to ban plastic bags is short-sighted and other alternatives make more sense, economically and environmentally.
"The plastic bag story is a good story to tell, not a bad story. They are reusable and they are 100 percent recyclable," said Andrew DeVilling, spokesman for Progressive Bag Alliance, a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers. "The public has accepted plastic bags, so the paper or plastic question has been answered. A ban is a mistake."
DeVilling said the approach taken by California is a better alternative. Beginning July 1, most large stores in that state will have to provide in-store recycling for bags.
At Graul's Market in Annapolis, Ken West, 51, said, "Paper products and recycling is more responsible, but I wouldn't totally ban plastic."
"If you have frozen items, plastic is better," he said as he loaded paper and plastic grocery bags into his mother's car.
Rachel Zeiler, a cashier at the store, tries to educate her customers as they pass through her lane.
"When people say paper, I tell them that you can recycle paper and plastic," she said. "But people are used to both, and a ban would be weird."
Bagging hot, cold
Indeed, for many shoppers, the paper and plastic question breaks down, not along environmental lines, but along hot and cold - cold wet items (ice cream, frozen dinners, milk) take plastic, and dry items go in paper.
Donna Dempsey, of the Society of Plastics, argues that there's a large and growing market for recycled plastic used in components of such things as decks and piers.
"It is our position that the plastic bag is a better environmental choice," she said. "But we understand that if people don't properly reuse them or recycle them they are flying in trees. We have been extremely pro-active to educate grocers about recycling."
In Annapolis, several council members said they would reserve judgment until further discussion and a public hearing, likely later in July.
Kraft, in Baltimore, said he would re-introduce his legislation if it isn't approved, and he might consider an alternative that would charge retailers a fee for each bag they issue, with the money going to a "green fund" that would finance cleanups and other environmental projects.
"We spend a lot of time taking them out of trees, and if you go down to the harbor they are floating around. We want to cut down on those things that most fill up the waste stream," Kraft said.
Paper or Plastic?
While plastic bags are more widely used in the United States, both paper and plastic have advantages and disadvantages:
Made from trees, a renewable resource
Biodegradable and recyclable
Requires more energy and produces more air and water pollution to manufacture than plastic bags
Made from petroleum
Not as biodegradable, especially in landfills
Requires less space for storage and in landfills
Can be recycled, though rates of recycling are low compared with paper
Accounts for a major percentage of litter on highways and waterways
[Source: Reusablebags.com, the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Ocean Conservancy]