Plastic bags are lightweight, handy and easily thrown away after use.

Just about everyone will have used those disposable bags from the grocery store to carry their foodstuffs home, and occasionally a second or third use to temporarily store or transport some reasonably light item — then tossed them away when they split.

We can be cured of this common practice by taking a long, careful look at a photograph of a dead seabird or other creature whose beak or stomach has been clogged with this symbol of human convenience.

The struggle of losing this “convenience” vs. what should be our planet-wide commitment to protecting the environment seems an obvious choice.

It is time to ban or significantly restrict single-use plastic bags in groceries and other stores.

It’s a comparatively small action, but a reasonable one.

Critics may see this as an infringement on businesses, and a lessening of convenience in our consumer society. Paper bags aren’t as versatile, useless when wet, and just plain awkward when their handles break off. Industry spokesmen say they may cost businesses more than three times as more to stock at their cash registers. But they are biodegradable and often manufactured from recycled paper.

The city of Portland has been a pioneer in this campaign and its website contains excellent tips on specific strategies to help — as well as a well-argued case for why its leaders have taken the stance.

“Plastic bags are extremely lightweight and can act like balloons blowing out of garbage trucks and landfills,” city leaders say. “These flyaway bags litter our parks and trees, enter storm drains and can eventually end up in rivers and oceans where they break into small, toxic pieces.

“Plastics have found their way into all five of the world’s major ocean current systems and are one of the most common types of litter found in Portland’s rivers and on Oregon’s beaches. Sea animals often mistake plastic particles for food, causing harm to the animals and potentially affecting the seafood we eat.”

State considering ban

North Coast leaders talked about a possible ban last year, but the idea went nowhere. Outgoing Astoria Mayor Arline LaMear said last month that she wishes she’d pushed harder on the issue.

“It always just disturbs me when I drive someplace and I see them on our roads, trees and ocean,” LaMear said in August. “I’m aware some people like these plastic bags for convenience, but we hope to show how much damage it does to the environment.”

More than a dozen other cities in Oregon have taken action, including the tiny community of Silverton — a place smaller than Astoria. That has prompted discussions in Salem about taking a statewide approach. The Legislature is now considering a tax on plastic bags and a ban on single-use plastic straws.

We think it’s appropriate for the state to step in, though the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

It’s plain silly for people to travel from city to city not knowing what regulations exist in different communities. It’s also unfair for small merchants in one town to make the switch when their big-box competitors a few miles down the road hand out bags by the ton.

All that needs to happen is for people to buy and then re-use sturdy cloth bags of their own — keep them in the car, or fold them up and carry them if they are walking to the store. When large grocery stores were ordered to charge for plastic bags in Great Britain in 2015, their use diminished significantly as residents returned to their 1950s practice of carrying their own shopping bags.

The government’s environmental minister, Therese Coffey, hailed the program as a success less than a year later when announcing significantly diminished number of bags in circulation. “It will mean our precious marine life is safer, our communities are cleaner and future generations won’t be saddled with mountains of plastic taking hundreds of years to break down in landfill sites,” she told The Guardian newspaper.

That success led to broader discussions about straws and polystyrene in Britain and other western nations. Australia, for example, is poised to enact tighter rules on disposables in most regions late this year.

For the past two or more decades, we have exhorted North Coast residents to “think globally, act locally.” That phrase was dreamed up as the 1960s ended and made popular in the 1970s. Since then, it’s been an easy philosophy that anyone can embrace. It just makes sense.

Disposable grocery bags are among the foremost symbols that we have become an out-of-control, throwaway society.

Cloth bags are usually easier and more comfortable to carry, and can be used over and over. Their additional bulk is minimal, and worth the effort.

Here’s a step we can take to help the environment — and signal our shared belief in the need to do so.

It is an idea whose time has come.

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