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Why 'paper or plastic?' may be coming to an end at California grocery stores

Paul Rogers, The Mercury News on

Published in News & Features

For years, “paper or plastic?” has been the question that millions of shoppers hear when they roll up to the checkout counter.

But in California, that universal phrase may soon be going the way of “Yada, yada, yada,” “Heeere’s Johnny!” and “send me a fax.”

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the California state Senate and Assembly approved two bills that that would ban supermarkets, retail stores and convenience stories from providing shoppers with reusable plastic bags. If they pass the other chamber, and are signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which is likely, the measures would take effect Jan. 1, 2026.

California already bans flimsy white, single-use plastic bags at most supermarkets and retail stores. They were prohibited in 2016 when voters passed Proposition 67, over concerns about plastic pollution in the ocean and litter.

But that ballot measure eight years ago contained a loophole, inserted by some Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento who had plastic bag factories in their districts. It said that thicker plastic bags could still be used at stores if they were labeled as recyclable and could be reused.

Now a coalition of environmental groups and their supporters in the state Capitol say those thicker bags need to go too.


“With tougher rules and eco-friendly alternatives, we’re ready to kick plastic bags to the curb and reclaim our environment,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Orinda, the sponsor of one of the bills.

The numbers of those thicker plastic bags, which have handles and are common at stores like Safeway and Target, have been climbing, and studies show that most of them aren’t being recycled.

An investigation by ABC News last year found that when journalists put electronic tracking tags on 46 bundles of plastic bags left in recycling bins in Wal Mart and Target stores around the country, only 4 ended up at recycling centers. Half went to in landfills and waste incinerators, seven stopped pinging at transfer stations that don’t recycle or sort plastic bags, six last pinged at the store where they were dropped off, and three ended up in Indonesia and Malaysia, where some U.S. trash is shipped for processing.

Cal Recycle, the state agency that tracks garbage going to landfills, found that in 2014, there were 83,000 tons of plastic bags in the state’s waste stream. After the statewide grocery ban passed, that number fell to 67,000 tons. But by 2021, it had shot up to 139,000 tons.


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