The sight of a Hawaiian beach covered in trash and seabirds choking on plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean turned Briton Rebecca Hosking...

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The sight of a Hawaiian beach covered in trash and seabirds choking on plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean turned Briton Rebecca Hosking into an environmental activist in her own backyard.

Hosking, a documentary maker for the British Broadcasting Corp., showed footage of the damage to retailers in the village of Modbury, southwestern England. That prompted all 43 shops in town to stop giving away plastic bags in May and triggered a campaign that’s putting pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to roll out restrictions nationwide.

Animals “through millions of years of evolution have learned that anything colorful on the ocean surface is a food source,” Hosking says. “Plastic bags are problematic because they mimic jellyfish.”

Britons use 13 billion of the bags a year, each of which takes 400 years to break down, according to London Councils, which represents the capital’s 33 local governments. Ireland in 2002 imposed a tax on plastic bags — now 22 euro cents (32 U.S. cents) a bag — that has cut use by 90 percent, the country’s Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government says.

Hosking’s campaign is a “great example of grass-roots action leading the debate,” says Mike Webster, a consultant at Waste Watch, a London-based group that promotes recycling. “What’s encouraging is that it’s spreading, and politicians are sitting up and taking notice and being braver as a result.”

More than 70 U.K. towns and villages plan to adopt voluntary plastic-bag bans, encouraging shoppers to shift to reusable carriers or cornstarch bags, according to the Marine Conservation Society, which campaigns to clean up U.K. beaches. As small retailers join with city governments to cut plastic-bag use, Brown last month said he would push for a nationwide phaseout.

“All over the country, campaigns have been formed to get rid of disposable plastic bags — one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste,” Brown said in a Nov. 19 speech in London. “I am convinced that we can eliminate single-use disposable bags altogether.”

Brown said he wants the U.K.’s largest supermarket chains to expand their pledge to reduce their use of plastic bags by 25 percent by 2008. While supermarkets promote recycling, only one in 200 plastic bags is recycled, the government says.

On Nov. 13, London’s 33 local councils voted to demand that Parliament restrict the use of plastic bags in the capital. Proposed legislation would bar retailers from giving away bags for free. The law wouldn’t take effect before 2009.

“This is not pie in the sky,” says Merrick Cockell, chairman of London Councils. “It’s readily possible.”

Others are moving faster. Hebden Bridge, a village in the county of Yorkshire, followed Modbury’s example in September. On Nov. 30, Borough Councilor Elaine Still declared Overton plastic-bag-free at the town’s Christmas light ceremony.

Overton shopkeeper Peter Baker rallied more than 60 businesses that gave away a total of 33,000 plastic bags a month, to shift to renewable alternatives after reading about Modbury’s effort. Retailers will switch to biodegradable cornstarch bags, with most outlets charging 10 pence (21 cents) each.

The campaign is changing consumer attitudes.

“I hadn’t thought about it before, and every time I used to go out I would come back with loads of plastic bags and chuck them all away,” says Jane Ford, 60, toting one of the cloth bags Overton retailers now sell. “Now I use this all the time.”

Abandoning plastic bags may not be as environmentally friendly as people think, says David Tyson, chief executive officer of the Packaging and Industrial Films Association, a U.K. trade group whose 70 members sell about 300 million pounds ($617 million) of plastic bags annually.

Production and transport of paper bags, which are 10 times heavier than plastic, produces more of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming than the lighter alternative, he says.

Hosking, the Modbury activist, says plastic bags are just a small part of a larger environmental crisis.

In her travels, she’s seen turtles eating trash and an “avian apocalypse” in the Midway Islands, where albatrosses starve because their stomachs are filled with plastic.

East of Hawaii, ocean currents form a “gyre,” or giant eddy, that dumps rubbish from around the world on the islands. At Volcanoes National Park, Hosking saw chest-high piles of waste along a beach.

“There was all this plastic: everything in your house made of plastic … ” she says. “Knocking out plastic bags is a really tiny thing to do, but I hope it starts to get people thinking about the bigger picture.”