Many years ago, way before iPhones, Lady Gaga, and cars that tell you when to turn, the kid at the end of the supermarket checkout lane would ask: “Paper, or plastic?”

But now, at least in many parts of the country, the guy bagging your groceries is more likely to be 60, coming off his third unemployment extension and trying to scrape up a little spare cash for his next bottle of Lipitor. And he says to you: “Plastic, or do you have a green bag?”

And a growing number of people opt for the green bag because well, it’s just such a nice thing to do for the planet.

Even though the supervisor down at the plastic bag factory gathers everybody on the line together and says: “We’re going to have to start doing some rolling layoffs. The whole green bag thing, you know.”

Here’s a question for you flower-powered environmentalists. Just how green do you suppose all of these green bags are?

I hauled out our collection of green bags from the same cupboard where we keep our plastic bags, which we recycle. So it’s jammed-up with plastic, and there are so many cloth bags stuffed into the same spot you can hardly close the cupboard door.

I noticed that most of them are made in China, which means they’re produced by people making 18 cents an hour in a city with smog so thick you could move it around with a forklift.

They are then loaded on to a ship, which burns diesel fuel to lug the products 6,200 miles to California where they’re stacked on a truck or train, and then shipped cross country another thousand miles or so to a climate-controlled company warehouse.

The bags cost anywhere from a buck (50 cents at The Dollar Store) up to $3 or more depending what sort of trendy design you’d like on the front. The cheap ones, I’m told by my wife, last for a few trips to the store and then they’re ready for the landfill.

Then of course there’s the problem that some of these bags have tested positive for lead, which is a heck of a thing for a container you’re supposed to use to carry around fresh food. It’s in the paint on the bags, so the fancier the bag is, the more likely it is to have some lead in it.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is calling for a federal investigation into green bag contamination. (Hey, I knew the Democrats would finally get the lead out.)

“Lead, when it gets into your system, it takes years to accumulate to have harmful effects, and these bags are relatively new,” he said. “So, if we can get rid of the lead in these bags now the danger to people is negligible or nonexistent.

“Adding insult to injury, guess where most of these bags are made? China, a country that has flaunted safety when it comes to American imports over and over again. Whether it’s toys or food or now bags, China has no regard for American safety.”

If you don’t keep these bags clean – people tend to put them away and use them over and over – you can find that some nasty bacteria has built up. And the bags are not machine washable. That’s what the note on the label says. The note from China.

Actually I know that there are some stores that still offer paper, and this makes sense to me. Paper is inherently friendly to the environment and breaks down in landfills over a long enough time period. Plastic bags are convenient and if everybody recycled them, they would probably leave a minimal footprint on the planet.

See? And you thought you were the consummate environmentalist. But it’s not so easy being green.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lukaquinn/2955601699/