The best answer may surprise you.

The best answer may surprise you.

It's a seemingly simple, but increasingly complex question we all face at the grocery checkout-paper or plastic bags? These options are complicated, but the best answer is neither: instead, bring your own reusable canvas bag.

Retailers and even countries are jumping on the plastic-ban bandwagon. Whole Foods recently announced that by April 22, 2008-Earth Day-it would stop distributing plastic bags in all its 270 stores in the United States, Canada and the UK. This food market isn't alone in its efforts to ban plastic bags: San Francisco did it last spring and China recently announced that it would outlaw plastic bags by June.

But how much of an impact will phasing out plastics bags really make?

A Few Facts:

* Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide.

* It could take up to 1,000 years for a high-density polyethylene plastic bag to break down in the environment.

* It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper.

* Producing paper bags uses more energy and water and generates more air pollution and solid waste than producing plastic bags. Paper bags also take up more space in a landfill.

* Recycling rates of either type of disposable bag are extremely low- only 10 to 15 percent of paper bags and 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Sources:, NRDC and Worldwatch Institute