Paper or plastic?
How about neither?
Florida environmental officials want to make the state the first in the nation to prohibit throwaway plastic and paper bags.
The proposed ban would follow a five-year phaseout during which escalating fees, starting at a nickel a bag, would be imposed whenever such bags were used. Such a statewide fee — which would also be a national first — is already drawing criticism as a type of tax.
The state Department of Environmental Protection thinks the manufacture of paper bags is as much of a pollution problem as the disposal of plastic bags. The thin plastic bags now used by most supermarket chains and other retailers are a source of litter across landscapes and on ocean currents, where they can kill marine animals and birds; they're also a headache for those who maintain storm drains and landfill machinery.
Still, use of throwaway bags would be a tough habit to break: Floridians churned through more than 5billion disposable plastic and paper bags in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available. But DEP officials aren't deterred.
"There won't be any problem finding reusable bags," said Ron Henricks, the agency's recycling-program environmental manager in Tallahassee. "What we are hoping is that, as the fee ramps up over the years, people are going to find it as more incentive to use reusable bags."
The agency's proposal stems from the Energy, Climate Change and Economic Security Act of 2008, which calls for the DEP to propose regulations governing the use of disposal bags. The law also prohibits Florida cities from imposing their own rules for disposal bags, something store owners say would create chaos.
The DEP's solution is to follow the lead of San Francisco and a scattering of other communities by banning the bags. Several states have talked about adopting such a measure statewide, but so far none has adopted one.
Now it's the Florida Legislature's turn to act, with consideration of the DEP's proposal coming as early as next year's spring session. By then, lawmakers will have had an earful from supporters and critics.
"We need to stop using plastic bags for groceries," said Keep Seminole Beautiful Director Mike Barr.
"We used to have paper bags, and people would worry about chopping down trees. And then we got plastic bags, and now they worry about petroleum products and turtles," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation.
The DEP's proposal, quietly released late Tuesday, targets the disposable bags provided by a wide variety of businesses, from supermarkets to fast-food restaurants, convenience stores to dry cleaners.
Items exempt from the proposed ban would include bags for produce and sub sandwiches — carryout containers, tissue, bubble plastic used to cushion delicate items, and newspaper bags.
McAllister said that, after a quick read of the DEP's report Wednesday, he considers the recommendation "draconian." He said stores have made great strides with voluntary efforts to recycle disposal bags and give away or sell reusable bags.
"The real trick here is to get consumers to change their behavior," he said. "And we are making great progress. It's almost like this issue has found its remedy already."
By the fifth and final year of the state's proposed phaseout, anyone wanting a paper or plastic bag for merchandise would be charged a quarter a bag.
"That's a heavy tax on Florida citizens — on everybody," McAllister said.
Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said his company is neutral on a paper-and-plastic ban. But customers at the College Park Publix were quick to weigh in Tuesday.
"I don't think it's something the government should be involved with," Michael House said.
"If they did ban them, I wouldn't have a problem with it," Veronica Mitchell said.
Pearlena Shepherd's actions spoke louder than words. She arrived at the supermarket with a large, insulated bag that she already has used at least "20 times" for grocery shopping.
Whole Foods Market stopped giving out plastic bags last year. About 20percent to 30percent of customers now bring reusable bags, and the percentage doing so continues to rise, said regional marketing director Russ Benblatt.
"At the very beginning ... there were a few people who, once they got their groceries home, would reuse the plastic bags, and those were the ones who weren't too thrilled," Benblatt said. "But if that resulted in 2percent of our customers being unhappy, that's probably a high estimate."
Jim Becker, director of Orange County's landfill, wouldn't miss plastic bags, a type of trash that seems to grow wings in even the lightest breeze.
He once spotted what he thought were three birds soaring high over the landfill.
"It turned out they were plastic bags caught in a thermal," he said.
Kevin Spear can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5062.