SIKESTON -- Grocery shoppers are so accustomed to plastic bags that the "paper or plastic" question from a cashier is more likely to refer to payment methods than grocery bags.
"We don't ask paper or plastic - they bag their own," said Eddie Moore, store manager for Sav-A-Lot in Sikeston.
While his store still has both paper and plastic bags available, customers choose plastic over paper by a wide margin. "It's 99 percent plastic," he estimated.
"We still have both," said Harold McCoy, manager of the Piggly Wiggly in Miner. "Most of the time we know our customer and we know what they use - there's very few that want paper any more. ... I don't order much paper."
Some stores don't even offer paper grocery sacks anymore. "We just have plastic at this store," said James Miller, store manager at the Sikeston Wal-
Wal-Mart store managers have the option of offering paper sacks "if there's customer demand - I would venture to say there's not a lot," said Tara Stewart, Wal-Mart corporate spokesperson. "It's a local decision."
Stewart said she doesn't know how many Wal-Marts are presently offering paper bags as they are ordered locally by store managers.
Miller said he doesn't know when the Sikeston store made the change to only using plastic bags.
In a recent news release, Denny Banister, assistant director of public affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau in Jefferson City, recalls the days when plastic bags were just a substitute for "our tried and true paper grocery sacks."
"Soon, however, grocery baggers changed their question," Banister said. "Instead of asking whether we 'preferred' paper or plastic, they began asking 'Will plastic be all right?' We reluctantly began to agree; we did not want to appear contentious."
Plastic bags were an improvement over paper in several ways. By hooking thumbs and fingers through plastic bag handles, shoppers can carry a dozen or so bags at a time instead of just two or three. Handles on plastic bags do occasionally tear, but then the bottoms don't fall out when they become damp like paper bags.
Environmental issues influence the decision for some people, but which option is really the best for the environment?
According to the Film and Bag Federation Web site at www.plasticbag.com, plastic bags take up less room in landfills. Paper doesn't degrade fast enough to make a difference to landfills running out of room.
Today's plastic bags use 30 percent less material than bags made just five years ago while retaining their strength, according to the Federation. The Web site notes that not only do plastic bags generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper bags, they also consume 40 percent less energy, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes than paper bags.
Before making it to a landfill, many plastic bags are put to work a second time for carrying and storing other items, as wastebasket liners, as packing material and dozens of other uses.
Many plastic bags never go to the landfills at all: Wal-Mart's plastic bags were changed from blue to white over a year ago "to make them more usable in a variety of recycled products," according to Stewart. "There are recycling bins in every store."
Additionally, recycled content is included in the production of new plastic Wal-Mart bags. "It's better for the Earth," Stewart said.
On the other hand, those who think they are saving a tree by using plastic need to think again, according to Banister, as most paper products are produced from trees planted specifically to make paper.
With the rising cost of oil, which is used to produce plastic, plastic bags are increasing in price while paper prices remain steady, according to Banister.
"Now with high oil prices, perhaps we should rethink the plastic versus paper issue at the grocery store," he said. "A recent report from the military said commissary stores, the GI version of grocery stores, report a savings of $1.1 million so far this year by convincing military customers to switch from plastic to paper."
He encouraged civilian grocery shoppers to consider switching back to paper.
"If using paper bags brings out the tree hugger in you in spite of the fact the trees producing the bags are a farmed renewable resource, buy some reusable canvas or mesh bags to take on your shopping trips," Banister said.