Last year, San Francisco banned retailers from giving their customers plastic bags to carry their goods. Oakland has the same law, though it’s tied up in an industry lawsuit. Seattle, Phoenix, New York and Boston are considering similar measures. China will ban plastic bags next month; Paris, by 2012. Ireland has taxed them nearly into oblivion.

The war on plastic bags is only beginning. As critics point out, the bags are terrible for the environment. They’re made from fossil fuels. Animals choke on them. They create unnecessary litter and linger in landfills forever, as it takes them 1,000 years to degrade. Now some environmental activists want to make them a historical relic.

Even in Orlando, which is rarely ahead of the green curve, such a move is on. Lush Cosmetics, which has locations in the Florida Mall and at Orlando International Airport, does more than merely forbid plastic bags from its stores; the company is leading a petition drive to convince the city to ban them altogether. So far, company officials say they’ve collected some 200 signatures from their stores, the Internet and college campuses.

Other retailers have already jumped on the anti-plastic bandwagon. On April 22 – Earth Day – Whole Foods Market stopped offering plastic bags. IKEA, the Swedish furniture store, will do the same Oct. 1. Dandelion Communitea Café uses corn-based biodegradable bags instead of plastic ones. But does all that mean Orlando is ready to follow San Francisco’s lead?

“We’d like to see that happen in Orlando,” says Sean Gifford, a spokesman for Lush. “We need the mayor to get behind it and push it.”

That’s not likely. According to city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh, Mayor Buddy Dyer has little interest in the issue. “In this case, the city feels banning the use of plastic bags is something the company itself should consider,” Allebaugh says. “It is very similar to how brown paper bags used to be the primary grocery bag used and the industry made the change.” 

The industry made that change because plastic is cheaper, not out of any higher concern. The nondegradable bags, made from crude oil and natural gas, became popular in the 1970s. They’re rarely recycled: According to WorldWatch Institute, a D.C.-based environmental sustainability think tank, less than 1 percent of the 100 billion plastic bags the U.S. uses every year are recycled.

Most bags are, of course, discarded. They then end up blocking waterways and storm drains. They litter beach shorelines. Animals eat or suffocate on them. Perhaps most important in an era of sky-high gas prices, it takes more than 12 million barrels of oil each year to meet the U.S.’s plastic-bag appetite.

There have been recent movements in Miami and Sarasota to enact citywide bans, though that only prompted retailers to plead their case for a statewide law to Tallahassee lawmakers, rather than letting municipalities create their own laws. In all likelihood, if the GOP-led Legislature ever does take up plastic bags, it won’t be to ban them.

Still, Gifford is keeping his hopes up. “I would think `a ban` is something that could happen very quickly,” he says. “They don’t biodegrade. They’re a drain on natural resources. I think that people are starting to wake up and see they can’t just ignore environmental problems anymore, especially in light of global warming,” Gifford says.

Whole Foods rewards customers for bringing their own bags, albeit meagerly. If you use your own bag, you get a dime back.

“We want to keep them out of our lakes, our rivers and our landfills,” says Lauressa Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Winter Park store. Nelson says that as more businesses set an example and stop offering plastic bags as a choice, it’s likely that more Orlando-area retailers will follow suit.

“It’s starting to happen,” Gifford says. “It’s only a small handful. But it’s a beginning.”


More by Deanna Morey


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