A wonder material you can't get rid of

"We just as an industry believe that this is not a material problem. It's not a plastics problem. It's a behavioral problem," Babe said. "We don't from that then step away and say we have no responsibility; we know that we have a responsibility. Our responsibility is to help to educate the consumer and it's to ensure that as we recycle more and more of these plastics that there are going to be products in which we can use them."

Babe predicts the rising costs of oil and natural gas -- the raw materials of plastics -- will encourage manufacturers to use more recycled content without the need for new laws. But right now we seem to be finding more and more ways to use more and more plastic.

"One out of every three servings of water now comes from a bottle in the United States. And this is apparently how we're increasingly hydrating ourselves -- with these big packs of petroleum-wrapped water," author Dan Imhoff said.

Imhoff believes far too many things come wrapped in plastic. His book "Paper of Plastic" takes aim at what he considers over-packaging.

The problem is that packaging is now a big part of the global economy: low-priced imports are protected by all that plastic for shipping, and the big boxes make them both attractive on the shelves and too bulky to shoplift.

"It certainly catches your eye," Imhoff said. "But what are you gonna do with it when you get it home -- I mean, if you safely can get this thing open?"

When you finally get the packaging off, Imhoff said it goes in the trash and then it will be around for the next 1,000 years.

Indeed, when plastic is thrown away, it doesn't just go away. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, where currents carry floating waste, plastic is now more plentiful than plankton. Along coastlines, seabirds are turning up dead - their bellies literally stuffed with it. In landfills, there are concerns about long-term pollution as plastic decomposes. All reasons why just last week, the city government of San Francisco announced it would stop buying bottled water.

And remember all those bags? San Francisco's leaders have calculated that a plastic bag which costs a supermarket just a penny to buy costs the public seventeen cents to deal with as litter. So the city has moved to ban them from big chain stores and wants to replace them with biodegradable bags made from corn starch.

Ironically, plastic bags were first introduced as an Earth-friendly alternative to paper. The discussion has left many shoppers wondering just how to respond when asked "Paper or plastic?"

"Really, the easy answer is just neither," Imhoff said. "Neither paper nor plastic. Bring your own bag, bring something that's reusable. Have a whole stash of these reusable bags -- you'll give them to your grandkids, they'll last forever!"

Chances are, they may thank you, because as we've seen, little things have a way of adding up.