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Despite its dowdy reputation as just another old bag, the paper sack has emerged as a key player in the race to save the environment. And the reasons are many.

Paper bags are recyclable and are made from a renewable resource - trees. They can be re-used in a multitude of ways and are biodegradable when discarded.Paper bags can stand up all by themselves, are tough enough to resist tears and punctures, and won't fall over in the car when you round a corner on the way home from the grocer store.

They're American-born - Charles Stilwell of Pittsburgh invented the pleated, square-bottom paper bag in 1883. And more than 95 percent are made from American trees in American factories.

"I don't know of anything that's more all-American than the paper bag," says Margaret England, the national volunteer director of Responsible Environmental Action Programs. REAP promotes educational projects concerning environmentally responsible choices for consumers.

Its "Package Mine In Paper" campaign encourages consumers to ask for paper bags at the check-out stand, and lobbies supermarkets to provide paper bags as an option.

The paper bag commonly used today is basically the same model Stilwell came up with 108 years ago. It is referred to in the industry as the S.O.S. - self-opening sack - because it can be opened by a grocery sacker with a flick of the wrist.

The biggest change in the paper bag since Stilwell's day has been in the paper. In 1910 manufacturers switched to a new kind of paper called kraft (German for strength), developed in a laboratory by altering the chemical solution in which the paper pulp was cooked.

But the paper bag did not become a fixture on the American scene until after 1930 and the birth of the supermarket. With grocers carrying more products under one roof than ever before - and consumers carrying home more as a result - its popularity soared.

According to the American Paper Institute, 55 percent of the fiber used to make kraft paper today comes from secondary sources such as wood residues and waste paper, rather than virgin pulpwood.

Though the collection system for recycling paper bags lags behind that of newspapers and corrugated boxes, they can be easily recycled into new bags, boxes and other paper items.

Some tests have found paper bags can decompose in as little as seven days under ideal conditions (such as in compost piles). The decomposition does slow in landfills, because three essential components - air, moisture and sunlight - are often inadequate.

Paper bags such as International Paper's Garbax are now being made in larger sizes to handle yard waste - which accounts for some 20 percent of the garbage in the nation's overburdened landfills.


Interesting facts about paper bags

- The nation's supermarkets use more than 20 billion paper bags every year.

- A company called Stone Container has developed a formula for making paper grocery bags 100 percent from recycled newsprint.

- Another company, Willamette, has produced a paper bag made 40 percent from recycled boxes, 8 percent from waste from box and bag plants, and 52 percent from leftover fiber from sawmills, plywood plants and logging operations.

- Responsible Environmental Action Programs, a volunteer group, has developed a collection of hats made from paper bags to heighten environmental awareness. The group is presenting fashion shows of the hats around the country.

- The fastest sacker around is Heith Palek of Hartville, Ohio, who won the 1991 Best Bagger Contest sponsored annually by the National Grocers Association. He out-bagged checkers from across the country by sacking 29 items into two bags in less than 45 seconds.

- Several years ago, during a particularly disastrous season, New Orleans Saints fans began attending games wearing paper bags with eyeholes cut out.