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Legislators Consider Ban on Plastic Shopping Bags

Va. lawmakers are considering banning plastic bags at grocery stores and chain retailers.
Va. lawmakers are considering banning plastic bags at grocery stores and chain retailers. (Ricky Carioti - Washington Post)

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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

RICHMOND -- Virginia might once and for all put an end to that nagging question: Paper or plastic?

Legislators are considering banning plastic bags at grocery stores and chain retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart because of their potential harm to the environment.

The ubiquitous bags are blamed for choking birds and fish, floating into trees, rooftops and streets and sticking around years longer than paper.

"We're wasting energy. We're polluting," said Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Virginia is not known for progressive environmental policy, but some lawmakers want to help the state find a place in the green movement.

One proposal would force stores to ban thin, single-use bags and allow only sturdy, reusable bags. Others would require stores to recycle plastic bags or charge customers a nickel for every bag the customers receive, and the money would go toward cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's one smart thing we can do," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

The proposed ban did not originate with environmental groups. The discussion started last year, when cotton farmers in eastern Virginia discovered that bags floated into their equipment, damaging machines and diminishing the cotton's quality. They formed the Virginia Plastic Bag Coalition to look into the issue.

"It's mushroomed into a real strong movement," said Del. William K. Barlow (D-Isle of Wight), whose district includes cotton farms.

State and local governments across the nation have been focusing on plastic bags for years as they search for ways to protect the environment, curb global warming and reform a disposable-minded society. Americans use more than 90 billion plastic bags a year, and only a fraction get recycled.

More than 100 proposals were debated across the country last year, filling the pages of the industry newspaper Plastics News.

San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007, and a few smaller cities followed. But bans have failed in dozens of other places, many of which instead mandated bag recycling at stores and malls.

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