Bag advocate says Manhattan Beach ban ruling still a 'huge victory' for plastics

By Mike Verespej

Published: July 15, 2011 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Packaging Sustainability Public Policy Materials Film & Sheet Suppliers
Companies & Associations

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (July 15, 12 p.m. ET) — The California Supreme Court has reversed two lower court rulings and upheld a ban on single-use carryout plastic bags in Manhattan Beach that has been on hold for three years because of a lawsuit filed by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition.

“This is an important victory for the environment and common sense,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “Several cities that have previously adopted ordinances can now begin enforcement, and dozens of other jurisdictions that have ordinances pending can move forward without have to incur the time and expense of a full-blown environmental impact report.”

But language in the court’s decision makes it debatable whether the July 14 unanimous decision by the Supreme Court will open the floodgates for more plastic bag bans in the state.

First, even though the court said that no environmental impact report (EIR) was needed in the Manhattan Beach case because “substantial evidence and common sense support the city’s determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect,” the court also said that its analysis of whether an EIR is necessary to enact a plastic bag ban “would be different” under different circumstances.

“The analysis would be different for a ban on plastic bags by a larger governmental body [as it] might precipitate a significant increase in paper bag consumption,” said the court. Manhattan Beach has an estimated population of 35,000 and roughly 200 retail stores.

In addition, the court said that “cumulative impacts [of bans] should not be allowed to escape review when they arise from a series of small-scale projects.”

Equally as critical, the court ruled that corporate entities such as the coalition can bring litigation under the California Environmental Quality Act — a right that had been challenged by both the city and environmental groups.

“Absent compelling policy reasons to the contrary, it would seem that corporate entities should be as free as natural persons to litigate in the public interest,” said Justice Carol Corrigan, who wrote the court’s unanimous decision. “Corporate purposes are not necessarily antithetical to the public interest.”

“That is absolutely huge,” said Stephen Joseph, counsel for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition. “That is the most important part of this decision for the plastic bag industry, and for the plastics industry in general.

“That is a huge, huge victory. This allows you to come in and challenge [an action] — provided you have evidence — if you think a ‘green’ project is going to do more harm than good for the environment.”

While not successful in its attempt to prevent the Manhattan Beach ban from going into effect without an EIR, Joseph said that the court decision “is specific to Manhattan Beach.”

The main reason: the court was restricted to making its decision based on the facts at that time — when only two other cities in the state, San Francisco and Malibu — had plastic bag bans.

“The premise for this decision is now gone, so I don’t think any city other than Manhattan Beach benefits,” Joseph said. “The court cleared the path to require cities other than Manhattan Beach to do EIRs — under two circumstances. Certainly larger cities have to do EIRs, and even smaller smaller cities may have to do EIRs because of the build-up of critical mass of smaller and larger cities with plastic bag bans since 2008.

“At this point in time, we are at the point where the cumulative impact” of plastic bag bans would need to be considered in determining whether an EIR is needed, said Joseph, "because the cumulative impacts of a shift to paper bags have reached critical cumulative mass.”

But Sarah Abramson Sikich, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, Calif., disagreed.

“I think the Supreme Court decision sets a very good precedent for local governments to go forward with plastic bag bans because it said that a ‘negative declaration’ was sufficient for small cities to go ahead with plastic bag bans. I think the ruling will be very discouraging for future litigation by the plastic bag industry.”

Joseph sees its differently.

“Environmentalists are out there shouting and gloating and saying: ‘We won. We won.’ But if this is their definition of victory, I’d like to see their definition of defeat,” Joseph said.

“They wanted to knock us out of the game by saying we didn’t have legal standing to litigate, and they wanted the court to say that no EIRs should ever be required with regard to plastic bags,” Joseph said. “They failed on both counts.”

"This decision is good for the plastics industry and it’s good for the environment. We are delighted and will continue to demand EIRs,” Joseph said. His coalition currently has lawsuits pending against Marin County because it did not conduct an EIR, and against Long Beach, Calif., because Long Beach "tampered with the Los Angeles County EIRs" when the city adopted it for its own use, Joseph said.

The two main plastics industry associations in the United States both had decidedly different reactions than Joseph to the Manhattan Beach decision.

The American Chemistry Council declined to comment, issuing a statement that it business unit, the Progressive Bag Affiliates, “is not a party to any litigation that the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has filed.

“PBA works to encourage lawmakers and stakeholders to work together to find environmentally and economically beneficial public policy solutions, such as increasing awareness and opportunities for plastic bag recycling,” ACC said.

The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. said it was disappointed by the ruling for two reasons.

“I’m disappointed in this specific court ruling, but I’m also disappointed that it continues an alarming trend of decisions to ban plastic products that are not based on sound science,” said Bill Carteaux, president and CEO of Washington-based SPI.

“If a thorough lifecycle assessment is conducted, significantly less energy” is needed to make and transport plastic bags than paper bags, and “a lot less greenhouse gases” are generated, he said. “Reuse and recycle has always been the answer. There are currently more than 15,000 drop off locations for recycling plastic bags. Our industry is working to expand that number.”

But Mark Murray of CAW disagreed with that life-cycle assessment by SPI.

“The whole notion that the use of paper bags generates more [greenhouse gas] emissions than plastic bags is not supported by the facts,” Murray said. “Even the plastic industry-funded Bousted study showed that the production of plastic bags produces more emissions than the production of an equivalent ‘carrying capacity’ of paper bags — about 2.5 plastic bags to 1 paper bag.”

Interestingly, while the court said the city “properly concluded” that its plastic bag ban would have “only a miniscule contributive effect” on the overall environment because any increase in paper bag production from its ban was likely to be “insubstantial,” it agreed that paper bags have more of a negative environmental impact.

“It is undisputed,” wrote the court, “that the manufacture, transportation, recycling and landfill disposal of paper bags entail more negative environmental consequences than the same aspects of the plastic bag ‘life cycle.’’

Manhattan Beach city officials said that they plan to begin to enforce their ban Jan. 1.

That brings the number of communities with plastic bans in the United States to 24 — more than half of them in California. In addition, Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland, have a 5-cent tax on carryout plastic and paper bags.

Murray said that San Rafael, Novato, San Anselmo, Sausalito, Mill Valley, Tiburon and the counties of Alameda, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo are in the process of moving forward with plastic bag bans.

In addition, the West Contra Costa Integrated Waste Management Authority — which represents the cities of El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole, Richmond and San Pablo — is also is discussing the adoption of a plastic bag ban.

“This precedent-setting victory means that local governments may no longer have to spend unnecessary time and money on EIRs to deal with plastic bag litter for fear of being sued on the grounds of inadequate environmental review,” Murray said.

“This is a great day for the Pacific Ocean,” added Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, an environmental advocacy group based in Los Angeles. “Cities and counties can now move forward with plans to protect our environment — and to safeguard the significant portion of our economy that depends on a healthy ocean and beaches.”


Bag advocate says Manhattan Beach ban ruling still a 'huge victory' for plastics

By Mike Verespej

Published: July 15, 2011 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments

Back to story

More stories


Bemis Co. reports sales growth

April 24, 2015 9:57 am ET

Bemis Co. Inc., in what the company is describing as a strong quarter, saw consistent earnings from continuing operations.    More


KHS cuts packaging with direct printing on PET bottles, adhesive multi-packs

April 23, 2015 1:39 pm ET

KHS GmbH has been pouring a lot of time into solving issues related to direct printing on PET bottles, and after eight years of work, everyone...    More


MeadWestvaco joins the Recycling Partnership

April 23, 2015 11:19 am ET

MeadWestvaco Corp., a global packaging company with some operations in plastics, is joining the Recycling Partnership.    More


Sidel, BMS reach agreement on spindle patent case

April 20, 2015 1:24 pm ET

Sidel Group and Blow Mold Services LLC have reached an agreement in Sidel's patent infringement lawsuit against BMS involving the spindle chain on a...    More


Adidas phasing out plastic bag use

April 20, 2015 11:50 am ET

Sporting goods company Adidas AG is phasing out the use of plastic bags in its own retail stores as part of a larger effort raise awareness about ocea...    More

Market Reports

Plastics Recycling Trends in North America

This report is a review and analysis of the North American Plastics Recycling Industry, including key trends and statistics based on 2013 performance. We examine market environment factors, regulatory issues, industry challenges, key drivers and emerging trends in post-consumer and post-industrial recycling.

Learn more

Injection Molding Market Analysis & Processor Rankings

Plastics News BUNDLED package contains our in-depth Market Analysis of the Injection Molding segment. You will gain keen insight on current trends and our economic outlook.

As a BONUS this includes PN's updated 2014 database of North American Injection Molders RANKED by sales volume. Sort, merge, mail & prospect by end market, materials processed, region, # of plants and more.

Learn more

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

June 2, 2015 - June 3, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - Chicago 2015

September 15, 2015 - September 17, 2015Plastics Caps & Closures - September 2015

More Events