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Paper, plastic or tote? Greenest choice isn’t always clear – Daily News

Welcome to The Compost, a weekly newsletter on key environmental news impacting Southern California. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox! In today’s edition…


So you’ve probably noticed the glaring loophole in California’s nearly decade-old, voter-backed ban on plastic bags.

Flimsy bags have been replaced with thicker ones, in some ways making the problem worse. So I wrote about lawmakers pitching a fix that would ban all plastic bags — Trader Joe’s style — as of 2026. Click here to read that tale.

(On a related note, state Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D-Encinitas, who authored the Senate version of that bill, also this week introduced legislation that would ban chain restaurants from offering single-use cups for customers dining in.)

The news on plastic bags has understandably sparked some questions. Here are a few I’ve received, with answers and some questions for you, dear Composters…

Q: “I’m old enough to remember when there were no plastic bags. Switched to plastic bags because we were cutting down too many trees. Now want to go back to paper. … Wonder what these people who want to plant more trees to fight climate change will have to say about that?”

A: This is a valid concern. Multiple studies have shown that, along with requiring trees, it takes more water and energy to make paper bags than to make the thin plastic bags we were using before this ban.

That’s only part of the story, though. Experts are becoming more and more concerned about the public and environmental health concerns with microplastics, which are shed from all sorts of plastic material. Then there’s the trash to consider. While, as the story explains, it’s pretty impossible to recycle the thicker plastic bags we’re now offered in California, even the thin plastic bags often didn’t get recycled. And when residents tried, they still tended to blow away or get stuck in machinery at sorting and recycling centers.

But there’s a crucial requirement in the proposed new laws that would also help flip the equation on the plastic vs. paper argument. Under the law voters approved in 2016, paper bags offered by stores must be made with at least 40% recycled materials. The bills introduced last week would require them to be made from “100% postconsumer recycled materials, without exception.”

So while there’s definitely still work to be done in reducing the other resources required to make both paper bags, no trees would be felled to make bags that could be offered in California stores if these bills become law.

Q: “What will prevent people from bringing them in from out of state? Will the police be looking for them like they do for illegal fireworks?”

A: The new laws don’t propose any rules around consumers having plastic bags, and certainly no criminal penalties. The law would only ban stores of a certain size and that sell certain types of goods (most grocery stores, in general) from offering plastic bags to consumers at the checkout stand.

Q: So if I care about the planet, what’s the best way to shop?

A: There’s no perfect solution. But no matter what type of bag or box you use to transport your groceries, the best thing you can do is to use it as many times as possible. The climate impacts of making one canvas tote are many times more intense than making one paper or plastic bag. But the more you use any item, the smaller its environmental footprint becomes.

Then, if you opt for paper, recycle or compost it once you’re done.

If you opt for cloth, research sustainably made options before you buy in.

For now, some folks can’t avoid getting plastic bags. That includes people who rely on Instacart or other delivery services, which default to the heavy plastic versions now sold in stores. In that case, try to reuse the bag as many times as possible to carry goods, empty the litter box, line your trash can…

You can also support legislative efforts to make all of these types of bags cleaner. And you can tell your favorite stores that you want them to prioritize offering the most sustainable bags possible.

If news that our plastic bag ban has actually made that waste stream worse has left you feeling discouraged, you’re certainly not alone. And this isn’t the only time environmentalists have gone down one path with the best of intentions only to learn the pivot wasn’t working out as planned. So I want to hear from you.

Are there other examples of times when you’ve changed your behavior or routine in hopes of doing the right thing for the planet only to find out there were unintended consequences? How did you navigate that? Did it discourage you from taking action in the future?

If you’re willing to talk about any of these issues, please reach out to me at bstaggs@scng.com. You might see yourself in a story very soon!

P.S. There were some interesting tidbits about how different demographics view climate and California’s natural environment in a new nationwide Los Angeles Times survey. Most notably, 64% of Americans and 76% of Californians said they were very or somewhat concerned about climate change.

I was interested to see that the “eco gender gap,” which I wrote about last summer, is still alive and well.

A perplexing statistic for those of us who live here and love to explore was that two in 10 Americans said California has a worse natural environment than most states. That figure climbs to three in 10 for Republicans, who shared negative views about the Golden State in most categories.

Read more about the survey results in this tale from Noah Bierman.


Click here for this week’s curated list of environmental news impacting Southern California.


Thanks for reading, Composters! And don’t forget to sign up to get The Compost delivered to your inbox.

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