MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Reusable shopping bags have become as much a fashion statement as a political one. They're everywhere these days, replacing the lowly plastic bag, which has become a symbol of environmental waste.
As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some reusable bags, though, are more environmentally friendly than others.
TOVIA SMITH: On that old elusive question of paper versus plastic, it seems now there is finally some consensus.
Ms. DARBY HOOVER (Senior Resource Specialist, Natural Resources Defense Council): Unfortunately, the answer is really neither.
SMITH: Darby Hoover is a researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Ms. HOOVER: A lot of shoppers and businesses are starting to realize there may be more alternatives than we've been presented with in the past.
Unidentified Woman #1: Did you bring any reusable bags?
Unidentified Woman #2: One.
SMITH: From this Whole Foods Market to Home Depot, stores are jumping on the reusable bag bandwagon, delighting many eco-minded shoppers, like 42-year-old Susan Klein.
Ms. SUSAN KLEIN: I think they're great. I love it. I have about five of them I use all the time for everything. I love them.
SMITH: But bagger beware: Environmental consultant Catherine Greener - yes, that's really her name - says not all reusable bags are created equal.
Ms. CATHERINE GREENER (CEO/Founder, Greener Solutions Inc.): You know, even to say green, there's different shades of green.
SMITH: Whole Foods bag, for example, is made up mostly recycled plastic, ecologically way better than a bag made from PVC or with harsh chemical dyes. But the bags are also shipped thousands of miles from overseas. So every reusable bag is, well, a mixed bag that can baffle both consumers and experts, like Hoover.
Ms. HOOVER: There are a lot of different characteristics, and it can be hard to say organic and fair trade in local cloth is better than recycled content polypropylene from China. It's - there are too many parameters to come up with a clear winner.
SMITH: Stores, too, struggle with the tradeoff. Last year, Wal-Mart started selling a black bag that was made entirely from recycled bottles. Now, they offer a cheaper blue bag that's thinner and uses less plastic. But on the other hand, only a third of the plastic in that bag is recycled, and it lasts only about half as long as the black one.
Again, Catherine Greener.
Ms. GREENER: So I think we're living in the land of confusion right now as we migrate through sort of what is less bad into what is truly good. You know, this is an evolving and a moving target.
SMITH: It all leads even experts, like Darby Hoover, to a very unscientific conclusion about what shoppers should buy.
Ms. HOOVER: My first answer to that would be, what draws your eye? Buy the bag that you most personally are going to reuse because that's the most important thing.
SMITH: So if some gritty hemp weave appeals to you, or if it's a little bling, or the $1,000 dollar Hermes silk shopping bag that turns you on:
Ms. HOOVER: If that makes you feel good, by all means, buy that bag.
SMITH: Eventually, you will hit the environmental break-even point. That is, as long as the bags are not just collecting dust somewhere.
Mr. PAUL BRINER (Contractor): I just forget. So they sit in the car.
SMITH: Paul Briner, a contractor in Boston, and firefighter Rob Williams, are among the many shoppers, even at Whole Foods, who are still struggling to change old habits.
Mr. ROB WILLIAMS (Firefighter): I'd rather have plastic, I'll be honest with you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WILLIAMS: I'm just being honest.
SMITH: Many stores are hoping financial incentives will help change hearts and habits.
Unidentified Woman: And with your bag discount, a total of 71.29.
SMITH: Whole Foods offers a nickel every time you BYOB. Other stores offer points and prizes.
Bob Lilienfeld, editor of The Use Less Stuff Report, says it may be years before most Americans really change.
Mr. BOB LILIENFELD (Editor, The Use Less Stuff Report): For 5 or 10 percent of the population, I'll call them, you know, the tree-huggers. It's okay. They're going to do it anyway. The vegetarians, they're going to do it anyway. The rest of us need an incentive.
SMITH: And ultimately, even if we eliminate billions of bags from the market, how much good will it do?
Mr. LILIENFELD: I hate to say it, but not much.
SMITH: Lilienfeld worries the people who no longer have a ready supply of old plastic bags for dog poop or the bathroom wastebasket will just buy other plastic bags instead.
And in the big picture, he says, the big fuss around shopping bags is really just a distraction.
Mr. LILIENFIELD: The bag is not the environmental bogey person that everybody thinks it is. If you look at the entire grocery package that you bought, the bag may account for 1 or 2 percent of the environmental impact. The other packaging may account for 7 percent. Ninety percent is accounted for by the products you buy. That's where all the environmental impact is.
SMITH: As people begin to think more about their shopping bags, Lilienfeld hopes they'll start to think more about what's in the bag as well.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.