Italy is saying ciao to plastic bags.
The country banned plastic bags in stores nationwide as part of a New Years pledge to improve the environment. The Italian Environment Ministry says shopkeepers can finish out their existing stock without penalty, but they must use bags that are bio-degradable or recyclable going forward.
"This marks a key step forward in the fight against pollution and it makes us all more responsible in terms of recycling," said Italy's Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo.
The European nation is the latest in a handful of countries to discourage the use of plastic bags. In 2003, South Africa banned the use of thinner plastic bags. That same year, Ireland introduced a surcharge on plastic bags that is said to have led to a 90 percent decrease in their usage. Other European nations -- like Belgium, Germany and France -- use taxes and charges to hinder their use.
In the U.S., the plastic bag ban is gaining momentum on the local level. In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic shopping bags in supermarkets and drug stores. Other cities, like Malibu, Calif., Bethel, Alaska, and Edmonds, Wash., also have bans in place. Meanwhile, new bans are set to go into effect in San Jose, Calif., Brownsville, Texas, and Kauai and Maui counties in Hawaii.
Italians use about 20 billion plastic bags annually, which environmental groups say averages to about 300-400 bags per person. The measure to discontinue the use of plastic bags has been in process since 2006, but plans to complete the ban last January were delayed because of industry opposition.
Plastic bags were once seen as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to the deforesting paper bag. But they are tricky to recycle and can result in litter problems.
"Plastic bags are easily airborne, and are not biodegradable, so they end up blowing around streets and neighborhoods and getting caught in trees and so forth, and they don't decompose. So the litter incentive drives many communities to legislate specifically on plastic bags," said a spokesman for the National Resources Defense Council.