Next time you go grocery shopping in San Francisco, you won’t be hearing “paper or plastic” at the check out. As of this past March, San Francisco is officially the first city in the United States to ban plastic shopping bags in certain establishments. The city by the Bay’s Board of Supervisors approved the groundbreaking legislation that would officially ban plastic checkout bags supermarkets by September and pharmacies by early 2008. City officials are optimistic that other U.S. cities including Los Angeles and New York will follow suit.

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With approximately 180 million plastic bags being distributed to shoppers in San Francisco each year, the bags pose an environmental problem as they are difficult to recycle, and often wind up in trees or bodies of water, where they harm ecosystems and kill marine life… not to mention their growing presence in landfills.

Under the new legislation, supermarkets and pharmacies will have to use either compostable bags made from corn starch, or recycled paper. The compostable bags would be easily recyclable through the city’s green garbage bin program. The bag ban also represents one of many environmentally-minded measures currently being pushed in San Francisco, including the proposed outlaw of Styrofoam food containers.

Check out these interesting plastic bag statistics, from the S.F. Department of the Environment and Worldwatch Institute, via the San Francisco Chronicle:

180 million: Roughly the number of plastic shopping bags distributed in San Francisco each year.

4 trillion to 5 trillion: Number of nondegradable plastic bags used worldwide annually.

430,000 gallons: Amount of oil needed to produce 100 million nondegradable plastic bags.