Greening your grocery bags is just one thing you can do that will have a big impact on the environment.
It takes about 20 billion barrels of oil to make 5 trillion plastic bags. Americans alone use more than 380 billion polyethylene bags and throw away approximately 100 billion of them per year. Only about 1 percent of these plastic bags are recycled.
Scientists estimate that it takes 1,000 years for a polyethylene bag to break down, and as polyethylene breaks down, toxic substances leach into the soil and enter the food chain.
The bags also take a more immediate toll on the environment: Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die per year by ingesting plastic bags.
San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City have all made moves to ban or limit the use of plastic bags.
In 2007, San Francisco was the first city in the United States to ban plastic bags at chains and large stores grossing more than $2 million a year, but so far the ban has not been hugely successful in altering consumers' throwaway behavior.
Unfortunately, according to San Francisco Weekly.com, more bags were found on the street by researchers in 2008 than before the ban, even though overall litter was down 17 percent.
In May 2009, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban plastic bags from stores beginning July 1, 2010. Shoppers can either bring their own bags or pay 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag.
The vote also puts pressure on the state to impose bag recycling requirements on stores. By implementing the ban, the council hopes to minimize cleanup costs for the city and reduce trash that collects in storm drains and the Los Angeles River.
The city estimates more than 2 billion bags are used each year in Los Angeles, and about 5 percent of plastic and 21 percent of paper bags are recycled in California.
In January 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City proposed a 5 cent fee on new plastic bags at the store register, and not for just grocery stores -- all bags given out at department stores, restaurants and other retailers are included.
You don't have to live in a big city to make a difference. You can limit or eliminate the use of plastic bags in your own home and make an eco-impact.
Look for plastic bag recycling programs at your local grocery store, and if the store doesn't contain one, suggest it to the manager.
While recycling plastic bags is a great start, you can eliminate your use entirely by taking a reusable bag with you to the grocery store or even the retail store.
Some grocery stores will sell you a reusable bag for a small cost and/or give you a discount for using your own bag instead of the paper or plastic.
The RuMe Reusable grocery bag is great for city folk or the minimalist. They fold up nice and tight to fit in a purse or jacket pocket.
RuMe reusable bags are manufactured in South Korea under strict fair trade policies and standards. With each new product line, RuMe will dedicate a portion of its proceeds to a social or environmental cause. (Those include Algalita Research Foundation dedicated to protecting the marine environment and its watersheds through research, education and restoration; Greenprint Denver's Million Trees Initiative, which seeks to plant 1 million trees in Denver; and the Food Bank for the Rockies, which provides food to more than 1,000 hunger relief programs in Colorado and Wyoming.)
One drawback is that the bags are made from polyester, which isn't super-eco-friendly.
Prices range from about $9 to $10 each.
This conveniently named Web site carries inexpensive reusable totes that aren't too tough on the wallet. The company donates 1 percent of sales to the environment and supports fair trade practices.
Bags cost between $3.95 and $15.95, depending on size and material.
Some bags are made from 100 percent recycled content, others from 100 percent organic cotton or silicone-coated nylon, which is what is used in outdoor equipment like tents, making them good for outdoor use. They are also small and compact.
Blue Avocado Reusable Grocery Bags are a system of bags for your trips to the grocery store. The biggest set of Gro-Pak bags includes a main tote, an insulated bag for hot and cold items, a mesh bag for veggies, a stuff-and-go bag that folds up really small and a multi-use bag. They all condense together to fit in one bag.
All of Blue Avocado's bags are responsibly manufactured with recycled material (about 10 percent recycled material, soon to be 50 percent in the next version); they're machine washable and include a carbon footprint label that shows you how many plastic bags you are saving by using them.
Using this system, an average shopper can replace up to 1,000 plastic bags every year (avoiding three plastic bags each grocery store trip will save more than 200 per year).
All Gro-Pak bags are available for purchase individually from $9.99 to $19.99, and "kits" range from $24.99 to $69.99.
Blue Avocado reinvests 1 percent of its income in loans to fund micro-entrepreneurs around the globe. As of January, the company had invested in 15 entrepreneurs from Guatemala to Cambodia.