04/28/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT
Our national love affair with the flimsy, ubiquitous plastic shopping bag is on the rocks—and part of the credit goes to Ross Mirkarimi. "They're scarring our ecosystem," says Mirkarimi, 46, a San Francisco city supervisor, who spearheaded legislation that made his city the first in the nation to outlaw disposable plastic bags. The ban, which affects large grocery and drugstore chains, went into effect last December, and now other cities are rushing to jump on the ban bandwagon.
Green warriors have long had the bags in their sights: Each year Americans consume between 30 and 100 billion plastic bags—enough to encircle the planet at least 31 times. They are manufactured using over 12 million barrels of oil, and only a fraction of them make it to the recycling bin. The remainder, according to Darby Hoover of the Natural Resources Defense Council, can take a thousand years to decompose and can clog landfills and litter the oceans—killing untold thousands of sea turtles and other animals every year. Even whales have died after ingesting plastic bags that resemble jellyfish. "They create pollution to produce and cause environmental difficulties to dispose of," says Hoover. The plastic plague is so widespread that scientists routinely report seeing bags littering remote Antarctica, carried there by ocean currents.
Mirkarimi, who is single and lives with a rescued dog and cat, was committed to the environment long before green was cool. He was moved to push the ban after reading about similar ones in Bangladesh and Ireland. His efforts have clearly touched a nerve. Now more than a dozen U.S. cities and four states are pondering bag bans. (China, which uses more than 3 billion a day, has also recently outlawed them.) "I had no idea this would catch on like this," says Mirkarimi, "but it's about time."