Increasing public awareness of the effect grocery bags can have on the environment has made the question "Would you like paper or plastic?" difficult for some to answer. A group of owner-members of the Ashland Food Co-op would like to make the situation easier by promoting a different answer: "No, thank you."

In an effort to increase the use of reusable cloth bags, the Co-op is now charging 10 cents per new paper or plastic bag. Plastic bags will no longer be offered once the current supply runs out.

"It's big news all around the world," said Annie Hoy, manager of outreach and owner services at the Co-op. "We know that plastic bags pollute &

there is just no question about that. Paper bags are really no better. They're still using some virgin timber and they're heavy to transport. Sure, they can be reused a few times, but they still have a large environmental footprint."

Many grocery stores in the United States have incentivized reuse of paper bags by offering a discount, but Co-op members felt that something more radical was needed to change people's habits.

So far, it seems to be working.

Employees at the store said they have begun to sell more cloth bags since the announcement, and it's rare to give out a new disposable bag before the lunch rush.

Cathy La Prova, a Co-op shopper carrying a paper sack, said she had just heard about the change but was planning on getting a re-usable bag anyway.

"I don't come [to the Co-op] too often, but even when I go to the other stores it will be nice to have a sturdier bag that is better for the environment," La Prova said.

That is precisely the change that this plan is designed to create, Hoy said.

"It really doesn't matter if we charge a nickel or three cents or a dime or a quarter," she said. "We just want people to consider getting a reusable bag for the first time or to remember to bring the ones they already have."

Susan Mandel, a Co-op owner for three years, said she has mixed feelings. She supports the plan because she said it will have the ultimate effect of increasing shoppers' consciousness about the issue, but she wonders what will be done with the money collected in the program.

"This all began when a group of owners approached us with a petition asking the Co-op to charge for new disposable bags," Hoy said. "We are playing this by ear. The plan now is to use the money collected to subsidize the price of our 'Happy Sacks,' which we currently sell at cost."

"Happy Sacks," cloth bags displaying the Co-op logo, sell for $2.02. The store plans to soon offer polypropylene mesh bags for less than a dollar and will still give away small paper sacks and boxes for free. Additionally, there will be a collection station for people to donate any extra cloth bags they have.

Hoy said she knows habits are hard to change and checkers will take a light approach at the counter.

"We are going to be easy on people," she said. "We're not going to be really adamant about collecting the 10 cents in the first few weeks. We are going to be very understanding as people learn to change their habits. But the reward of changing consumer habits and creating a culture of 'bring your own bag' will be worth the risk if it proves to people that they are capable of making changes in their lives that are environmentally friendly."

There is currently no plan for the $35,000 that the store budgets for bags each year, because there is no way to project how the program &

which is to be reevaluated in July &

will take hold.