Calif. SC OKs city's ban on plastic bags

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 14, 2011, 12:46pm


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) -- The California Supreme Court, in a ruling Thursday, said the City of Manhattan Beach does not have to prepare a special report before implementing a ban on plastic bags.

The Court, in its 26-page opinion, reversed the judgment of a state Court of Appeals and upheld the citywide ban.

On June 3, 2008, the city manager of Manhattan Beach issued a staff report recommending the adoption of an ordinance banning the use of "point-of-sale plastic carry-out bags" in the city.

The proposed ordinance included a finding that the California Environmental Quality Act did not apply because the ban would have no significant effect on the environment and because it qualified as a regulatory program to protect the environment.

Plaintiff Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, describing itself as "a newly formed group of companies that will be affected by any ordinance to ban or impose fees on plastic bags," objected to the proposed ordinance.

It claimed that the movement to ban plastic bags was based on misinformation and would increase the use of paper bags, with negative environmental consequences.

The coalition notified the city that it would sue if the ordinance was passed without a full CEQA review.

The city then conducted an initial study evaluating the environmental impacts of the proposed ordinance. The study noted: "Reducing the use of plastic bags in Manhattan Beach will have only a modest positive impact on the migration of plastic refuse into the ocean. However, as a coastal city the imposition of the ban is likely to have some modest impact on improving water quality and removing a potential biohazard from the marine environment."

The study also recognized that a switch from plastic to paper bags would have some negative environmental consequences. More energy is needed to manufacture and distribute paper bags, and more wastewater is produced in their manufacture and recycling.

However, the study concluded that the impacts of a plastic bag ban would be less than significant.

It noted that the ordinance posed no environmental threat to fish, wildlife, plant communities, historical resources or human beings and would decrease the prevalence of plastic bag litter, both in the city itself and in the ocean.

In all, the study recommended adoption of a negative declaration finding that the ordinance could not have a significant effect on the environment.

The coalition again objected and threatened litigation if the ordinance was adopted. On July 15, 2008, the city council adopted the ordinance.

A month later, the coalition petitioned for a writ of mandate to bar enforcement of the ordinance until the city prepared an environmental impact report. It claimed that public rights were at stake, and that its "objective in bringing this action (was) that of an interested citizen seeking to procure enforcement of... public duties."

The city responded that the coalition lacked standing to bring a citizen suit because corporations are not "citizens" and the coalition was seeking to advance the commercial and competitive interests of its members. The city also argued that the coalition had failed to show that the ordinance would have any substantial impact on the environment.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court granted the writ. It found that plaintiff had standing because it was not a "for-profit corporation that is seeking a commercial advantage over a specific competitor," and because it had raised a "genuine environmental issue: whether the banning of plastic bags, and the consequent increase in the use of paper bags, will increase, rather than decrease, injury to the environment."

The trial court further concluded that the evidence in the record supported a fair argument that the ban would increase environmental damage, so an environmental report was required.

The appeals court affirmed, in a split opinion.

On the standing question, the majority decided that the coalition was qualified to pursue its action under the "public right/public duty" exception to the requirement that a mandamus petition be brought by a "beneficially interested" party. The majority reasoned that the coalition was not asserting a commercial or purely competitive interest, and should be allowed to seek enforcement of the city's public duty to prepare an environmental report on the effects of the ordinance.

On the merits, the majority held that the coalition had submitted substantial evidence to support a fair argument that the ban would have significant environmental impacts.

The dissenting justices did not address the standing issue, but argued that the CEQA requirements would be stretched to the point of absurdity if a small city were required to prepare an environmental report on the effects of increased paper use that might result from a ban on the distribution of plastic bags.

The state's high court granted the city's petition for review. Justice Carol A. Corrigan authored the opinion.

The Court considered two questions:

- What are the standing requirements for a corporate entity to challenge a determination on the preparation of an environmental impact report?

- Was the city of Manhattan Beach required to prepare such a report on the effects of an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags by local businesses?

The Court agreed that the coalition would qualify for public interest standing in this case.

It also concluded that the coalition, which represents businesses directly affected by the city's ordinance, has standing in its own right to challenge the city's analysis of the environmental impacts.

"The term 'citizen' in this context is descriptive, not prescriptive. It reflects an understanding that the action is undertaken to further the public interest and is not limited to the plaintiff's private concerns. Entities that are not technically 'citizens' regularly bring citizen suits," the Court wrote.

"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."

However, the Court noted that, in this case, it was unnecessary to resort to the public interest exception.

"Plaintiff plainly possesses the direct, substantial sort of beneficial interest required to seek a writ of mandate under Code of Civil Procedure section 1086. Its members include manufacturers and suppliers of plastic bags used by businesses in Manhattan Beach," it wrote.

"The ordinance's ban on plastic bags would have a severe and immediate effect on their business in the city. Clearly, they have a 'particular right to be preserved or protected over and above the interest held in common with the public at large.'"

And while the courts below ruled that the city had to prepare an environmental report before implementing the ban on plastic bags, the Supreme Court disagreed.

"Substantial evidence and common sense support the city's determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect. Therefore, a negative declaration was sufficient to comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act," it wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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