ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Paper or plastic? It is a question that has long dogged grocery shoppers. But the debate may soon be settled for this maritime city, where a bill aimed at protecting marine life would ban plastic bags from all retail stores.
San Francisco enacted a ban in April, but it applies just to larger groceries and drugstores. Similar measures are being considered in Boston; Baltimore; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau and director of EarthEcho, an environmental education group in Washington, said, "Banning plastic makes sense for the simple reason that it takes more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, which means that every single piece of plastic we've ever manufactured is still around, and much of it ends up in the oceans killing animals."
Ms. Cousteau attended a public meeting here on Monday to support the measure. More than 70 people attended the meeting.
The bill aims to help protect Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, whose fish and birds often die after ingesting discarded plastic bags. Stores would be required to offer paper bags made from recycled material under the bill, which goes to a final City Council vote in October.
Critics say the ban would be expensive and counterproductive.
"It sounds good until you consider the cost," said Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food, the grocery chain based in Landover, Md.
Instead of taking away plastic bags, which cost 2 cents each compared with 5 cents for paper bags, Annapolis should enforce its litter laws, Mr. Scher said.
He added that Giant already offered a 3-cent credit for every plastic bag that customers return to the store and that 2,200 tons of bags a year were recycled and turned into backyard decks and park benches.
Paper bags are bulkier to transport than plastic bags, Mr. Scher added, and more trucks, fuel and pollution are involved in delivering them to stores.
"That may be true," said Alderman Sam Shropshire, the sponsor of the bill here. "But what they don't tell you is that to make 100 billion plastic checkout bags per year, which is how many we use in the U.S. each year, it takes 12 million barrels of oil. No oil is used to produce recycled paper checkout bags."
Jeffrie Zellmer, legislative director of the Maryland Retailers Association, said it took far less energy to recycle plastic than to recycle paper. Mr. Zellmer added that 90 percent of retailers used plastic bags and that costs could increase threefold or sixfold, eventually reaching consumers.
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The commercial recycling coordinator for the City and County of San Francisco, Jack Macy, said that nationally 1 percent of all plastic checkout bags were recycled. "That means the rest end up in landfill," Mr. Macy said. "And so the argument about plastic recycling being energy efficient isn't a strong one."
"Look," Mr. Shropshire said, "in the end, the best option is for people to bring their own reusable bags. But if they fail to do that, then they can use paper bags that biodegrade faster than plastic and yet do not require any trees to be cut down."
At the hearing, a lobbyist for Safeway called the bill un-American, saying it would take choices away from consumers.
For now, Mayor Ellen O. Moyer of Annapolis, a Democrat, remains undecided on the measure.
A spokesman for Ms. Moyer, Ray Weaver, said the city planned to distribute reusable bags to residents by the fall. To accomplish that, Mr. Weaver said, the city is considering teaming with sail makers to use excess material that teenagers in a jobs program may sew into sacks.
"I think it's a smart move," said Jim Martin, owner of the Free State Press, a small printing and copy store several blocks from the State Capitol, as he ordered business cards for a City Council member to be delivered in a plastic bag.
Mr. Martin said he was more than willing to phase out the plastic bags because he was tired of the litter in the streets, trees and bay.
Brian Cahalan, owner of 49 West, a coffeehouse about two blocks from the Capitol, said that regardless of whether the measure passed, the debate had compelled him to act.
Though his store uses plastic bags, Mr. Cahalan said, he plans to encourage customers to use their own bags or none by adding a fee of 25 cents for each store bag used.
"That way," he said, "we won't have to figure out which of these two types of litter is worse."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company