Super thin, handy and tough, the plastic grocery bag survives the punishment of shopping exceedingly well. And that's the problem, a group of supermarkets has decided, unveiling plans on Tuesday to ban the bags from their stores by spring.

The announcement from two local co-ops as well as Whole Foods Market comes as the seemingly immortal "disposable" grocery bag comes under renewed criticism as an environmental menace by everyone from the Sierra Club to the Chinese government, which issued a fiat this month banning the bags.

"There are deposits of this plastic in the ocean," said Darci Gauthier of Mississippi Market grocery store in St. Paul. "It's just everywhere now. It's crazy."

The super-thin grocery bag, usually made out of polyethylene film, came along just 25 years ago to alleviate our burdens, and in that short time it has spread across the world like an urban tumbleweed.

They can be found in all oceans, as far north as Alaska and across Africa, where some call it the national flower.

At just a penny to make, the bag's cheap yet sturdy allure accounts for 80 percent of all bags used at supermarkets and convenience stores, according to the American Plastics Council.

Gauthier's supermarket plans to eliminate the bags this spring, offering customers either paper bags or a reusable bag for 99 cents.

Similar moves at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis and at Whole Foods locations nationwide will go into effect by Earth Day, on April 22. The Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods company said it will distribute 50,000 reusable shopping bags for free, and then charge 99 cents each.

The Wedge plans to sell a variety of reusable bags that cost 99 cents to $16.69, said a spokesman.

The war of the bags is a familiar one to most grocers, who have responded with solutions that run from recycling centers for plastic bags to refunds for returning used bags.

At Lunds and Byerlys, customers can choose from three bags, including paper, reusable or thin plastic. The thin plastic bags will be replaced in March with a biodegradeable plastic bag, said company spokesman Aaron Sorenson.

"If a plastic bag ended up on the street, it would degrade," he said.

The larger grocers, including Cub Foods and Rainbow, have so far resisted a complete plastic-bag ban, but have begun selling reusable tote bags for customers who want to break away from plastic. The stores also recycle plastic bags returned by customers, sending the bags to a company that turns them into decking and furniture.

29 billion to 100 billion

So how many bags are consumed? It depends on who you ask.

The global use of plastic bags amounts to 100 billion a year, according to the Film and Bag Federation, an industry trade group. Others say it's much higher, approaching 100 billion in the United States alone. The website has a running ticker of U.S. bag consumption which, as of last night, topped 29 billion.

A petroleum-based bag takes 1,000 years to degrade and doesn't truly biodegrade but simply breaks into smaller toxic particles, potentially washing back into the food stream. A South Dakota farmer sued when his cow swallowed a plastic bag and died. And at least five states and the cities of Chicago and New York require warning labels on thin film bags like those handed out at supermarkets -- they can suffocate children.

Taxes on shoppers or the bag-producing companies have been imposed in Ireland and Taiwan.

The bags are banned in Bangladesh, some remote Alaskan villages and the city of San Francisco.

If other supermarkets join the few that plan to ban them this spring, people won't give up their bags overnight, said Gauthier of Mississippi Market.

"We're trying to promote people bringing in their own bags," she said. "It's a big change for people to get used to. It will take time."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329