Every day, American consumers are offered a simple choice when they are by a store's cashier: "paper or plastic?"  But as VOA's Ted Landphair explains in today's searching for solutions report, some communities are starting to take away that option.

San Francisco, California, has ordered big grocery and drugstore chains to stop passing out the strong, sheer plastic bags, made from petrochemicals.

And the city council in Maryland's quaint capital plans to vote on an even stronger measure come October.

Alderman Sam Shropshire introduced it. "We're talking about 100 billion plastic checkout bags distributed annually in the United States by retailers. And greater than 95 percent, according to the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, are going in landfills, or they're blowing around in the air.  Or washing into storm drains, making it into our creeks and rivers, and out into the Chesapeake Bay."

There, fish and waterfowl sometimes mistake the bags for jellyfish.

Shropshire's measure would force even small Annapolis shopkeepers to switch entirely to 100 percent recycled shopping bags that guarantee that no trees have been cut.

Grocery store clerk: "Hi. Would you like paper or plastic?"
Tousaan Jones, customer: "Plastic."

These days, nine out of 10 American shoppers prefer plastic over paper.

San Francisco concluded that plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade in a landfill.  But in the here and now, Tousaan Jones likes how they stretch, are easy to carry, and do not fall apart in the rain. "I think that the older people prefer to use the paper bags, because it was what they were used to."

Older people, like Seymour Alloy. "To me, it's an absolute.  A store that doesn't give the option of paper bags is not a store that I would go to, except in extremism."

Barry Scher is a vice president of the big Giant Foods grocery chain.

Scher says it would cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to give up plastic bags.  Consider, he says, how much truck and storage space paper bags take up. "Plastic bags is [are] about that high [reaches to eye level].  We did that demonstration before the city council in Annapolis.  And a thousand paper bags is [are] about that high [reaches far over his head]."

On one thing, grocer Scher and Alderman Shropshire agree:  The ideal choice would be re-usable totes like shoppers around the world take back and forth to market.

So, there's a lot more at stake than the simple question of "paper or plastic."