“Paper or plastic,” grocery clerks have to ask over and over in many places. My answer is “Neither. I’ve got my own.”

I’ve been using cloth bags for over 25 years. They’re getting a bit worn, but their condition is a healthy reminder of human mortality. Besides, they can easily be patched. I figure I’ve saved about 7 trees instead of using paper bags all this time, and about 22 gallons if oil if I’d been using plastic. Of course if I’d insisted on double bagging, these numbers would double.

You can have the same salutary effect if you just buy a reusable cloth or plastic bag at your local store. If they don’t sell such items, you can by them at www.reusablebags.com/ If you don’t like the reusable offerings at this site, just Google “reusable grocery bags” and shop around for a model that suits your tastes, matches your fashionable outfits, or whatever.

Nationally, grocery bags add up to vast nonsensical waste. Plastic bags require the equivalent of 4 million barrels of oil a year (some estimates run to 10 million, but I’m being conservative here). Plus, these plastic bags create a mass of ugly litter that costs a lot of money to pick up, and they kill sea animals that end up choking on them. Paper bags require grinding up 14 million trees annually, plus cutting trees down and pulping them actually causes more pollution and uses even more energy than plastic. On top of all this, it costs money to haul bags to our ever-expanding dumps, and, contrary to popular belief, paper doesn’t break down in landfills.

Up to this point, we’ve done precious little to deal with such environmental stupidity.  But now, San Francisco (ah yes, those toxic San Francisco values again) has taken a first step toward terminating throwaway grocery bags:  The city has banned plastic bags from being used by stores that have $2 million or more in annual sales, unless the bags are biodegradable.

It’s nice to see that we’re catching up with such advanced nations as South Africa and Bangladesh. Plastic bags were outlawed in South Africa in 2003 and banned in Bangladesh (they were blamed for aggravating floods during the monsoon season by clogging drains). Ireland slapped a 20-cent per bag fee on the damn things five years ago, which resulted in a 90 percent drop plastic bag use.

I say San Francisco is taking a “first step,” because I’m no fan of a bag just because the damn thing is biodegradable. It still takes resources to make one, so “biodegradable,” a word that’s come to have sacred meaning to enviros, is not all that great.

Predictably, the California Grocers Association opposed the new law, audibly wringing their hands about it, whining and moaning that biodegradable bags cost more than ordinary plastic. You would think that, rather than wasting their resources fighting the inevitable, they would order their merchandising geniuses figure out how to MARKET reusable bags and make them universal, like in Ireland. Sure, they’ll take a temporary hit, but in the end they’ll make money selling the reusable bags, plus they’ll save the cost of 2 or 3 cents a bag they now pay for the “free” bag the customer takes home. U.S. grocers currently squander $4 BILLION a year doling out free bags! They, and not the enviros, ought to be falling over themselves to ban the things. It never ceases to amaze me how business associations cut their own throats by automatically resisting change. The Chamber of Commerce’s insane opposition to environmental laws is a classic example of such backward, bullheaded behavior, but that’s a depressing topic for another occasion. For now, let us rejoice, rejoice and be exceedingly glad that some progress is being made.