Boston — Jeanne Bakelar enjoys getting caught holding the bag - as long as it's a paper bag. ``So many shoppers take the newly popular plastic bag without a murmur,'' says Ms. Bakelar, a real estate agent from Sparta, N.J., ``because it has built-in handles that make it easy to carry. But I prefer the simple old-fashioned paper bag.''
``I resent the idea of merchants putting my merchandise in a shapeless, nonbiodegradable plastic container,'' she says. ``These bags are a threat to the environment; they are a waste product that can't be recycled.'' She also supports using paper containers for foods - milk cartons and coffee cups.
Bakelar became a combatant in the bag war three years ago when she discovered a grocery store in New York that offered only plastic bags. Since then she has been traveling across the country asking stores to give their customers a choice between plastic and paper bags. To dramatize her crusade, she went to some stores with a paper bag over her head. News reports tagged her as the ``bag lady of New Jersey.''
Today's campaign has expanded beyond her original one-woman effort. She participates in local media blitzes, appearing on television and radio news and talk programs, giving interviews to the print media. ``I soon found out I couldn't accomplish this mission alone,'' she says. ``So I recruited members of our local women's club.''
Other support followed from the General Federation of Women's Clubs (with 10 million members), which corralled 500,000 volunteers to spread her safe-environment message nationwide and ask for paper bags in grocery stores.
``We plan to recognize manufacturers who package products in paper, glass, or aluminum,'' says Alice C. Donahue, international president of the federation. ``We have designed a symbol - three rotating arrows showcase the recycling and reuse of materials.''
Allied with the federation is the American Paper Institute, a trade association based in New York City. The $700 million bag industry sells more than 22 billion grocery bags a year, says David H. Carleton of the institute. He says that in 1986, 38 percent of all grocery bags were plastic, compared with only 5 percent in 1982.
The advantages of plastic over paper are the convenience of handles, durability, and low cost. Consumers make the final decision on containers, paper or plastic, says a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, which takes no position on this issue.
Customers do not react the same in all cities. In Washington, D.C., major chains report a leaning toward the plastic. The figures are 60-40 for plastic, says Barry Sher of Giant Food Stores. Brian Dowling of Safeway Stores predicts consumers will favor plastic 70-30 in the long run. In Boston, people favor paper bags, saying they dislike plastic packages because they do not stand up or maintain their shape.
The plastic industry is encouraging the development of biodegradable plastic containers. Several companies are experimenting with the production of plastic bags made partly from cornstarch. One drawback is the higher cost of producing these containers, says Gary Weaver, vice-president of Rollpak, a company in Goshen, Ind., which produces 7 percent cornstarch plastic bags.
The bag war rages on, but Bakelar maintains her sense of humor with a bumper sticker that reads: ``Paper bags have sacks appeal.''