In an attempt to help California cities facing lawsuits challenging their plastic bag bans, the state Ocean Protection Council will develop a master environmental assessment of carryout bags that cities can use as the basis to review the bans.
Noting that more than 30 state communities and counties are considering bans and fees, OPC voted April 23 to conduct a comprehensive analysis that all public agencies could use.
A bag ban in Manhattan Beach, Calif., that was scheduled to go into effect Feb. 14 was overturned by the Superior Court of California after the Save the Plastic Bag coalition sued, arguing that the city did not conduct an environmental impact report as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The group also sued Palo Alto, Calif., to prevent its ban from going into effect Sept. 18. Save the Plastic Bag's threatened lawsuits have caused other California cities, including Santa Monica, Morgan Hill and Mountain View, to delay action on similar measures.
San Francisco and Malibu have bans on plastic bans, along with Fairfax, Calif., whose voters in November approved a ban after city officials pulled back on passing the measure in the face of a threatened coalition lawsuit.
Getting the state of California to do a Master Environmental Impact Report is a major success for the industry and we are absolutely delighted, said Stephen Joseph, coalition counsel. It is a direct response to our successful lawsuit against Manhattan Beach. This is an opportunity to establish the true facts about plastic, paper and reusable bags and dispel the myths, misinformation and exaggerations once and for all.
The American Chemistry Council also welcomed the OPC's action, which is expected to take 6-9 months and to be complete by early 2010.
It is a positive development that this study will be done to assess the environmental impact of paper, plastic and reusable bags, said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the plastics division of the ACC. We have always supported analysis and looking at the environmental impact of bags, and conducting a life-cycle assessment.
Joseph said the coalition will be fully engaged in the environmental impact review (EIR) process and will hold the OPC's feet to the fire to make sure the EIR is done right, arguing that anti-plastic bag activists have based their allegations on no evidence whatsoever.
Arlington, Va.-based ACC also is looking into being involved in the process, Christman said. We look forward to sharing the results of our studies with [OPC], he said. ACC expects that the state agency's findings will be similar to the industry's research, which indicates that the use of plastic bags reduces greenhouse gases by 50 percent, energy use by 70 percent and waste by 80 percent compared to paper, he said.
Christman said that any environmental assessment also needs to look at the impact of alternative products, recycling issues and the use of recycled content, pointing to the commitment the plastics industry recently made to use 40 percent recycled content in carryout bags by 2015.
In his summary of OPC's planned study, project manager Doug George wrote: Cities and counties need to examine the environmental impacts associated with the regulation of single-use bags, both paper and plastic. But currently no comparative analysis of the range of possibilities and their associated impacts exists.
George also noted that some studies show plastic bags are more damaging to the marine environment than paper bags, but that paper bags may have a significant adverse impact related to greenhouse-gas emissions and waste streams, and studies on the environmental impact of using reusable bags made from a variety of materials remain elusive.
He also pointed to conflicting results between a 1990 study by Franklin Associates Ltd. that favored plastic bags and a 2000 Chalmers Industriteknik study that indicated paper bags had less environmental impact.
This study will provide information that may lead to the mitigation, elimination or reduction of the harmful effect to the marine environment caused by single-use bags and provide the necessary background information for cities and counties to prepare EIRs for proposed ordinances, George wrote.
The OPC assessment would be the starting point or foundation of an EIR for a community, not an EIR in itself, said Drew Bohan, executive policy director of OPC.
But it would provide them with a lot of the foundational information they need, Bohan said.
Under state law, California cities and counties are not required to collect new data before enacting bans only to analyze existing research.