Italy, one of the top users of plastic shopping bags in Europe, has banned them, with retailers warning of chaos and many stores braced for the switch.

Italian critics say polyethylene bags use too much oil to produce, take too long to break down, clog drains and easily spread to become eye sores and environmental hazards. Italians use about 20 billion bags a year -- more than 330 per person -- or about one-fifth of the total used in Europe, according to Italian environmentalist lobby Legambiente.  

Beginning this past Saturday, Jan. 1, Italian retailers are banned from providing shoppers polyethylene bags. They can use bags made of such material as biodegradable plastic, cloth or paper.  

Other European countries have tried voluntary schemes to cut plastic bag use, such as promoting reusable cotton bags. In 2002 Ireland imposed a levy on bags of 15 euro cents (20 U.S. cents) that cut use by 90 percent within a week.  

"You are talking of a revolution that is already under way," Legambiente scientific chief Stefano Ciafani said of the shift to biodegradable bags. Two hundred municipalities out of Italy's 8,000 have introduced their own plastic bag bans, including the cities of Turin and Venice, Ciafani said. Many supermarket chains have started using biodegradable bags for shoppers even if not on a nationwide basis, Legambiente says on its website.  

Legislation on the bag ban was set in December 2006 with an original deadline of January 2010. The halt was delayed because of industry opposition but was pushed through by Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo in a blanket decree last week.

Italy's rubber and plastics federation estimated the cost of changing over machines to make biodegradable bags was 30,000 euros ($39,440) to 50,000 euros per plant.

Read the full article by Nigel Tutt