Snagged in a tree, clogging a storm drain, blowing on the beach or down the sidewalk: Nothing embodies the “buy today, toss tomorrow” American way like the plastic bag.

A statewide plastic bag ban, effective January 1, should help beat back the suffocating omnipresence of single-use sacks. Oregon joins the ranks of seven other states with similar laws. But because ours includes restaurants and retailers and tacks on a five-cent paper bag fee at the checkout counter, it’s among the strongest nationwide, says Bri Goodwin of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental nonprofit that supported the ban.

Plastic bags are easily carried by wind or water, ending up in massive rafts of ocean garbage and filling the stomachs of marine fish, birds, and mammals. “Plastic never completely breaks down,” says Goodwin. “It gets broken into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never goes away.”

Local bag bans were already in place in 17 Oregon cities, including Portland, but those areas only covered about one-third of the state’s population. And the five-cent fee for paper bags will be new to Portland, the hope being that it will further nudge people toward reusable totes. In the first year of Portland’s 2011 plastic bag ban, a threefold increase in reusable bag use was overshadowed by a fivefold jump in use of paper bags.

Studies show that bag bans, especially when coupled with a fee, do reduce litter and boost the number of reusable bag converts. Yet plastic production continues to grow worldwide, and a typical grocery shopping trip generates plenty of other plastic waste, like those pesky produce and bulk bin bags into which you might pile your spinach or jasmine rice. Those bags aren’t part of the ban. There’s also the ubiquitous plastic packaging on staples like bread, tortillas, and toilet paper.

These types of plastic film aren’t accepted for curbside recycling, but they can be recycled at stores like Fred Meyer and WinCo. New Seasons re-launched this service last fall, sending plastic film to a Nevada company that manufactures decking material, says Athena Petty, sustainability manager for the grocery chain.

And if you want less plastic—recyclable or not—in your life, watch for the upcoming opening of NoPac Foods in Southeast Portland. It’s set to be “the very first full-service zero-waste grocery store in the country,” says founder Emily Robb. Plans call for nose-to-tail butcher cuts wrapped in compostable paper, cut-to-order butter and cheese, unusual bulk-bin finds like miso and soy sauce, and even scoop-your-own bulk frozen berries.

In the meantime, before adding a packaged item to your cart, Robb suggests asking yourself, “What is it packaged in? Can I find it without the package? And maybe, do I really need it?” 

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