The Santa Monica City Council was set to adopt an ordinance earlier this month banning single-use plastic bags from all retail establishments in the city, but postponed taking action on the ban so that city staff could conduct additional environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
A day before the meeting, the city received a 17-page letter from Stephen Joseph, an attorney representing SaveThePlasticBag.com, which is an association of plastic bag manufacturers and related businesses, stating its intent to file a lawsuit against the city after the ban is passed, according to Dean Kubani, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment.
“The letter alleges that the city’s claim of a CEQA exemption that’s written in our staff report right now is invalid and that the group has provided sufficient information to require the city, at a minimum, prepare an environmental impact report [EIR] prior to the adoption of this ordinance,” said Kubani.
EIRs are required before any ordinance is passed that may have a significant negative impact on the environment.
Because of the letter from the coalition, Santa Monica city staff recommended that the council still hold a public hearing and give direction on the substance of the proposed ordinance, but defer the first reading and adoption of the ordinance, so staff could perform an appropriate level of environmental review.
Kubani noted that this will probably only push the timeline back a little bit on the plastic bag ban, but it is important that the city take SaveThePlasticBag.com’s letter seriously.
Last year, the coalition filed a lawsuit against Manhattan Beach for adopting an ordinance banning plastic bags and against Los Angeles County for adopting a phased ban on plastic bags.
The court has granted the coalition’s motion for a preliminary injunction against Manhattan Beach and notes that the coalition is “likely to succeed on the merits of its claim that an EIR is required in the circumstances of this case.”
Both cases are pending.
During the public hearing at the council meeting, almost all supported the ban, including a number of Santa Monica High School students, among them Zachary Gold, co-president of the high school’s Heal the Bay Club, Surfrider Club and a member of Team Marine.
“There are few things more aggravating than swimming or paddling in the water and getting your arms caught in a plastic bag,” Gold said. “And as bad as that is, imagine how horrible it is for seals, pelicans and sea turtles?”
He continued, “If China can ban plastic bags for 1.3 billion people, then why can’t Santa Monica?”
Some suggested that the council should not be “bullied” by the letter from SaveThePlasticBag.com.
“We want to make this successful,” said City Councilman Richard Bloom, who is also an attorney. “The idea that somehow we’re dragging our feet or allowing ourselves to be bullied here couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Similar efforts in other communities have been met with litigation in virtually every case. And a number of those cases have been lost by those communities that have enacted ordinances. We want our ordinance to be as bulletproof as possible. We know how to litigate cases here. We’re not bullied by anybody.
“We don’t want to go in with a weak legal case. We want the strongest possible case. And so we’re going to move this forward methodically and the best way.
“It’s much better to have an ordinance that succeeds in court than one that fails. Then we’re left with nothing. It needs to be done right.”
The intent of the ordinance —which is expected to be passed by the council after further environmental analysis — is to “significantly reduce the environmental impacts related to single-use plastic and paper carryout bags and to promote a major shift toward the use of reusable bags, which we believe to be much less impactful on the environment,” said Kubani.
Plastic bags pollute not only coastal communities like Santa Monica, but also the ocean.
According to studies, marine debris — of which plastic bags are a significant source — kill more than one million sea birds and 100,000 sea animals each year that mistake it for food or become entangled in it.
Additionally, plastic bags can take 1,000 years to decompose.
The ban would not just prohibit all retail establishments in Santa Monica from providing single-use plastic bags to customers, but would also create a “green” fee for each paper bag distributed by grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies, as those are the biggest distributors of paper bags in the city, Kubani said.
The green fee would not apply to paper bags distributed at department stores or even the city’s Farmers Markets.
“The fee is intended to provide a disincentive to customers to use paper bags to incentivize the use of reusable bags,” Kubani said.
Paper bags distributed throughout the city under the green fee would be required to contain a minimum of 100 percent total recycle content and a minimum of 40 percent post consumer recycle content.
The ordinance would provide an exemption for restaurants and other food providers, allowing them to provide single-use plastic bags for the transportation of prepared takeout food.
Revenues collected from the green fee would offset the additional costs to stores for the purchase of paper bags and the cost of reporting, and would also fund implementation and enforcement efforts of the ordinance on the part of the city, Kubani said.
The level of the fee would be determined by a fee study, which will be completed this spring.