Environmental Dilemma: Paper or Plastic?

The common grocery store query, “paper or plastic” may soon vanish in some cities around the state.  The California Supreme Court will decide this summer whether a city hoping to ban plastic bags must prepare expensive environmental impact reviews. 

In an hour-long argument May 4 the court pondered whether the city of Manhattan Beach should have prepared an environmental impact report to justify its ban.  A coalition of folks who make the plastic bags argued that state environmental law demands it.  They say paper bags may be worse for the environment and cities have to investigate before issuing bans on plastic. 

But the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition had a big legal hill to climb.  The court also wants to know if the group even has the right to challenge the law, what’s known as “standing” to sue.

 “Standing is the number one issue before we get to CEQA” the California Environmental Quality Act, said Justice Joyce Kennard.  

Californian’s Against Waste attorney James Moose, spoke in support of the city’s position.  Moose got right to the point for most environmentalists when he said, “Californian’s Against Waste would answer the question ‘paper or plastic?’ with the answer, reusable cloth bags.  Paper is the second choice.” 

Los Angeles County alone uses 6 billion plastic bags annually and less than 5 percent are recycled, according to the California Integrated Waste Management board.  Manhattan Beach is one of more than a half-dozen California cities and counties that imposed bans on plastic bags. 

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, comprised of firms that make the bags, sued the city in 2008 arguing that paper bags are more harmful because they destroy trees, use more energy and water to produce, add to negative air quality and end up in landfills.

In January 2010, the Los Angeles Court of Appeal, by a 2-1 vote, sided with the plastic bag people.  It said the city should have prepared an Environmental Impact Study to comply with the state’s environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act.  But the dissenting judge said making the little town (33,000 people) do an EIR stretched state environmental law “to an absurdity.” 

The state Supreme Court stepped in to look at the issue.  Kennard  peppered both sides with questions but most justices took aim at plastics coalition lawyer Stephen Joseph and whether the plastic bag makers should even be allowed to sue. 

“We’re here because of environmental impacts,” said Joseph.  “We’re not coming here to complain about lost sales.  We’re coming here to complain about impact on the environmental interests,” he said. “That’s what CEQA is all about. We don’t want to turn this into a commercial case.  Obviously there is an impact on our members,” he said.

 Around the state, San Francisco imposed a ban in 2008.  San Jose, Los Angeles, Palo Alto and Santa Monica all prepared EIRs in conjunctions with imposing plastic bans and in all but San Francisco imposed fees on use of paper bags.

 The high court is expected to issue its decision within 90-days.

Case: Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach, No. S180720

Note: This story was updated 5/6/2011 to reflect James Moose is amicus attorney for the Californians Against Waste, supporting Manhattan Beach, and not the city’s attorney.

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