A few months ago, Italy took the laudable decision of getting rid of plastic bags.

This southern European country used to consume about one-fifth of the plastic bags on the continent, so the move must have been more than welcome. It aimed mainly at protecting the fragile environment, knowing that scientists warn that polyethylene bags take hundreds of years to break down into natural elements, in between clogging sewage systems, using too much petroleum to manufacture and being an eyesore when scattered around and polluting different landscapes.

Environmentalists urge consumers to use substitutes, noting that on average, a plastic bag is used only for 10 minutes, but stays in the environment around 1,000 years without degrading.

Efforts to make do without plastic bags are not new in Europe; other countries introduced voluntary plans to reduce or outright renounce using them.

For example in Ireland, a 15-cent fee on each bag in 2002 reportedly reduced use by 90 per cent in a week after introduction. Across the ocean, California is set to become the first US state to ban single-use plastic bags in grocery stores as of 2012.

Naturally, there are as many supporters for any such move as there are opponents – mainly manufacturers and retail store owners who say the solution lies not in banning but recycling these bags, something that seemingly lacks feasibility.

US environmental groups strongly support the measure, greatly helped by the growing “great Pacific garbage patch”, a mass of plastic trash floating about 1,600 kilometres off the coast of California. Media reports say the patch is twice the size of Texas. Even if it were smaller, it would be worrisome, for there have been reports, in some instances, of marine life suffocated by plastic sheets.

At home, we are blissfully dishing out plastic bags at grocery stores and other commercial outlets, with few signs of awareness and even fewer efforts to curb their use.

It is important to encourage individuals to use substitutes, but more important is to familiarise them with the health hazards inherent in the use of plastic bags.

The chemical additives that give them their desirable properties carry toxic materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury, or carcinogens. Those who do not care much about the environment owe it to themselves and their loved ones to secure protection by avoiding use of plastic bags.

This can be a first step in a several-year scheme to make Jordan a plastic bag-free country.