Let’s face it: plastic bags are really handy. But as we know, they’re also terrible for the environment and for wildlife. They jam landfills, where they will not decompose for centuries, and they float across wide swaths of the seas. More than 90 percent of all birds recently examined in the North Sea had plastics in their stomachs, according to the European Commission.

Environmentalists tried for years to get municipalities or retailers to ban the bags or at least charge consumers for each bag handed out at the cash register, with little success. But the tide seems to be turning. Today 133 American cities or counties have imposed controls, according to a recent update from the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. A database of the regulations can be downloaded here (Excel file).

The measures range from charges of 5 to 20 cents for every bag that is handed out by cashiers, to full bans—usually on so-called thin plastic bags, which are only intended for one-time use. Bans now cover one-third of the residents in California, the institute says. For example, San Francisco now bans bags from large supermarkets, chain pharmacies and restaurants. Plastic bag purchases by retailers in the state have fallen from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012, according to the institute. Plastics industry groups have raised lawsuits against various regulations but courts have not found in their favor in most cases.

Rules are on the rise in Texas, too. Austin has banned the thin bags, and Dallas has imposed a 5-cent fee that will go into effect in 2015. Seattle banned the bags in 2012 and instituted a 5-cent fee for paper bags, which are often handed out to shoppers who don’t have their own reusable cloth bags. Still, no U.S. state has managed to pass a statewide ban.

The progress is being welcomed by other countries such as Denmark and Ireland, which have led the movement. Members of the European Union have agreed to reduce plastic-bag use by 80 percent by 2019. However, restrictions in other parts of the world have been less successful. China passed a ban on extra-thin plastic bags before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but Scientific American’s own editor, David Biello, who was in China that year, was told that enforcement was often lax and fines were often not levied. Several large cities in South America have proposed bans that were defeated by industry or passed laws that were later overturned by courts.

The Earth Policy Institute, in another briefing, points out that recycling of plastic bags—often touted by industry as an alternative to fees or bans—often doesn’t work. The vast majority of bags in communities that have recycling still end up in the trash, the institute says. And recycling companies seems to run into problems with the bags that do come back; when mixed with the rest of the plastics waste stream, the bags tend to jam or damage sorting machines.

The other solution—biodegradable plastic bags—have had mixed success. The bags typically cost more, so consumers don’t buy them, and tests have shown that some of them don’t break down completely or quickly.

Scientists are finding new formulations that may perform better. Last week, for example, researcher at Virginia Tech unveiled thin, biodegradable plastic bags made in part from lignin, a compound in the cell walls of plants. Mills that make paper generate a lot of waste lignin that is usually discarded.

Various companies have tried to turn that waste into a resource, and Virginia Tech has hit upon a new approach, working with Domtar Corporation, a large pulp and paper company. In the new scheme, machines remove lignin during the pulping step, then refine it so it can be used in chemical processes. A spinoff company started by the Virginia Tech researchers, CycleWood Solutions, has filed patents for modifying that lignin and mixing it with other polymers to make biodegradable products. So far, a pilot plant has cranked out thin, single-use plastic bags, trash-can liners and meat bags. The company is now doing experimental runs for cups and plates. Tests by an independent lab in Belgium show the bags will disintegrate into humus particles that are less than 2 millimeters in size, within six months.

Photo courtesy of Cjp24 on WikimediaCommons