The question is still in the bag: Paper or plastic?

It took a while to get into the habit, but when Liz Wetton goes to the market, she always brings her reusable bags. The Malibu mother of three said she feels guilty if she forgets them.

“It’s easy this way and you just feel better,” said Wetton, loading groceries into a Volvo station wagon in a Ralphs parking lot off Pacific Coast Highway.

It’s a common sight in environmentally friendly Malibu, which a year ago banned retailers from dispensing plastic bags. But for the vast majority of California, the question remains: paper or plastic?

When San Francisco adopted the nation’s first ban on plastic grocery bags three years ago, euphoric supporters predicted that California’s addiction to the flimsy throwaway carriers was finally coming to an end.

But since then just one other city — Malibu — has enacted a ban. Attempts by two dozen other cities and counties to adopt their own regulations have been stopped cold. State legislation has failed three times.

In the meantime, retailers are still dispensing an estimated 19 billion plastic bags each year at supermarkets, drugstores and retailers. Despite efforts to increase recycling, just 5% are reused, government figures show.

What happened?

Simple, says Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a group that supports bag bans as a way to reduce landfill waste and beach litter: The plastics and grocery industries fought back.

Through legal action, bag manufacturers have effectively shut down attempts to rid supermarkets and drugstores of plastic bags, a long-prized goal of environmentalists.

Grocery store lobbyists have also been effective, fighting attempts to ban plastic bags or impose fees on them.

“It’s hugely frustrating,” Gold said. " A lot of us thought San Francisco was showing us the way to change. But these are well-funded industries and the stakes are high.”

Stephen Joseph, a lawyer for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a plastics industry group, said bag manufacturers took action because they were fed up with exaggerations and “myths” about the environmental harm they caused.

Plastic bags have been demonized by environmentalists, he said, but his group cited studies showing that paper was even more destructive to the environment. The studies, linked on the Save the Plastic Bag website, purportedly show that the process of manufacturing and distributing paper bags releases three times the greenhouse gases of plastic bags.

Claims that the bags kill marine animals and form a “plastic soup” hundreds of miles off the Pacific Coast are exaggerated, Joseph said.

“Prove to me that even one marine animal has died as a result of plastic bags,” he said. “Why should we accept that there is a problem when nobody has proved it?”

California courts have said the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has a point.

In a test case in Manhattan Beach, a state court judge overturned the city’s 2008 ordinance banning plastic bags. The court said the city should have first done an environmental study to review the effect of replacing plastic bags with paper.

The city lost an appeal, and the case is now headed to the state Supreme Court.

That lawsuit, and other legal challenges by the Save the Bag Coalition, prompted some cities to delay enacting their own bans and wait for a high court ruling. Some municipalities intend to move ahead but are first preparing environmental studies to avoid being sued.

Los Angeles, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, Santa Monica, San Diego and several smaller municipalities have expressed interest in adopting their own measures, as have the counties of Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara.

Karen Coca, division manager for Los Angeles’ recycling program, said a master environmental study to be used by several cities proposing bag measures will be completed this summer. City leaders have already adopted a resolution stating they would ban plastic bags this year if the state Legislature doesn’t slap a fee on them.

The city probably would phase out plastic bags in tandem with a public education campaign to explain its goals, Coca said. Some people are very attached to their plastic bags, she said.

“You have to be very cautious you’re doing it right,” she said. “Because once you get the ball rolling, you can’t stop it.”

Much of the debate revolves around how governments can phase out plastic bags without triggering other problems. Supermarket chains, for instance, don’t want to be stuck with a patchwork of different regulations.

Grocers also think customers will simply switch to more costly paper bags if the plastic version becomes unavailable. That’s what happened in San Francisco, said Dave Heylen of the California Grocers Assn. Paper bags cost about 5 cents apiece, compared with 1.5 cents per plastic bag, Heylen said.

Coca said she understands their argument.

“The idea is to get away from all single-use bags, not just plastics. If you look at studies, over a lifetime a reusable bag is much less polluting.”

At the state level, legislators have made three attempts to ban or impose fees on plastic bags. All failed because of industry lobbying or customer opposition to paying for bags. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is trying a different tactic this year: her bill, AB 1998, would simply ban both paper and plastic bags. It passed an Assembly appropriations committee last week.

Stores would have to make reusable bags available for purchase under Brownley’s law, and poor families would get assistance to buy them. Brownley calls plastic bags “urban tumbleweeds” that float across the landscape, eventually ending up in waterways.

Getting rid of single-use bags would also save government money spent cleaning up litter, the legislator said. California taxpayers spend about $25 million a year picking up and disposing of millions of plastic bags scattered across the landscape, she said.

Back in Malibu, Carole Oglesby doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. Plastic bags were convenient for disposing of kitty litter, she said, but she’s adjusted.

“You have to alter things,” Oglesby said.