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BOSTON (MainStreet) — They can be found everywhere: in the hands of shoppers, blowing down the streets, entangled in trees and even congregating as part of massive makeshift islands floating around our oceans. They are the single-use plastic bags offered to us with every purchase, which we often take and discard without a second thought. The plastic bag is so prevalent it was even named "most ubiquitous consumer product" by Guinness World Records in 2009.

There is an indication the decades-long popularity of the plastic bag here may be waning, though.

This past summer Los Angeles, the second-most-populous U.S. city, became the largest municipality in the country to pass a ban on plastic bags, of which it reportedly uses and disposes of 2 billion annually. The ban will go into effect early next year for stores larger than 10,000 square feet and in June for smaller stores. The ban is a follow-up to a 2010 ordinance in Los Angeles County banning plastic bags in unincorporated areas with more than 1 million residents and requiring stores to charge 10 cents per paper bag. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, the lobbying arm of the plastic-bag industry, is fighting the ban.

Large cities such as Chicago and New York City are considering measures to restrict or ban plastic bags. New York City, for instance, is considering a measure that if passed would mandate that retail stores charge a dime per disposable bag (whether paper or plastic) distributed. About 100,000 tons of plastic bags are transferred from the city to landfills in other states annually, costing the city $10 million a year.

New York City might be hoping to achieve what Dublin, Ireland, did when it implemented a tax on plastic bags in 2002: reduce plastic bags in the city by 94%, to the ultimate approval by retailers and their patrons.

Many other towns and cities in the U.S. have outright banned plastic bags in the past several years, including San Francisco, Seattle, Aspen, Colorado, Southampton, New York and Brookline, Mass. (Nantucket, Mass., was the first town to ban plastic bags, back in 1990.)

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This momentum on the municipal level has translated to six states — California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington – that are considering full-on bans. Another eight states – Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington – are considering more moderate legislation to charge for bags.

In Massachusetts, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich sponsored a bill that would effectively ban disposable plastic bags in large retail shops and grocery stores statewide but allow business to use compostable bags instead. If it makes it out of Ways and Means, it could come to the floor for a vote this year.

Many store chains have taken initiative. In 2007, Ikea introduced its "bag the plastic bag" program to the U.S., charging a nickel for plastic bags and offering an alternative reusable bag for 59 cents. In 2008, after a 92% reduction in use, Ikea stopped offering plastic bags altogether. Likewise, organic food behemoth Whole Foods Market (WFM) banned plastic bags in 2008 and offers only paper bags made from 100% post-consumer content or a reusable bag for 99 cents.

Whatever one's opinion is on formal bans, it cannot be denied that plastic bags cause significant harm to wildlife and the environment.

Each year, between 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide, with billions winding up in landfills. We throw away almost 100 billion plastic bags in the U.S. every year.

Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, while plastic waste kills an estimated 100,000 marine creatures (including dolphins, sea turtles, seals and whales) and 1 million sea birds annually. These animals often are strangled or choke on the plastic when they ingest it, mistaking it for jellyfish or other food.

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Plastic bags also can contribute to carbon emissions, since they are petroleum products that require intensive energy to make and transport. It is estimated that 12 million barrels of oil are needed to make 30 billion plastic bags.

Thrown-away plastic bags often wind up airborne and washing into waterways. The prevalence of plastic has led to two large islands of garbage in our oceans, known as the Great Pacific and the North Atlantic garbage patch, respectively. The Great Pacific garbage patch is twice the size of Texas; the North Atlantic garbage patch has at times waxed to a maximum length of 990 miles.

It is estimated that we successfully recover and recycle only 1% to 3% of the plastic bags we use in the U.S. In those cases where plastic bags are "recycled," they are often done so improperly by people tossing them carelessly in with recyclables on trash pickup days, where they go on to jam and damage expensive sorting machines.

Studies show that people often do not take the initiative to return plastic bags to stores for recycling even when the option is available, and even when plastic bags are returned to stores for recycling they are actually downcycled — that is, converted to a product of much lower quality than its original form.

So what's a good alternative?

In addition to refusing plastic shopping bags for single items that can easily be carried by hand, consumers should buy and make use of reusable cloth shopping bags. Canvas bags are 14 times better than plastic bags and 39 times better than paper bags from an energy standpoint, and can be used up to 500 times during their life cycle, according to a study by Australia's government.

— By Laura Kiesel