Well, it's official: India is starting to ban plastic bags. The government of western Maharashtra State banned the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags due to the massive clogging of any and all drainage systems during monsoon flooding. Bombay (Mumbai) residents were the first to chastize the government for its slow response after record rains hit the city this year, paralyzing the country's financial and entertainment capital. The choked drainage systems were unable to flush out the majority of water that fell in the state and helped cause debilitating landslides that killed over 1,000 people. To think that plastic bags could be responsible for so much damage.
Use of plastic bags world wide is growing. Each year between 500 - 1 billion plastic bags are used and thrown away. Thats fine if you have systems that are in place to gather them up (well, most of them anyway...I'm sure we've all seen our fair share of plastic bags dancing seductively through our city streets, backyards and favorite state parks). But most non-western countries don't have a system in place to pickup after themselves, much less the ability to recycle them. Many, like India, do not have standardized garbage pickup and thus, people just chuck the plastic onto the ground and that is that.
Is paper better? Not much. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, the U.S. used more than 10 billion paper grocery bags in 1999 requiring more than 14 million trees to be chopped down. Thats just for grocery bags. Factor in the hundreds of thousands daily newspapers, weekly magazines, computer paper and suddenly we've got quite a number of "non-vertical timber."
For a good intro into the background of paper vs. plastic checkout the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assesment. Who knew that it takes almost twice the amount of energy to make 1 plastic bag versus 2 paper?