It was the evening of January 15 – the first Manhattan Beach city council meeting of 2008.
An army of about 35 elementary school kids, then known as Planet Pals but now called Grades of Green, lined up at City Hall.
“It may take us more than a minute to get through all these kids,” joked Jim Aldinger, who was serving as mayor at the time.
A young girl approached the podium.
“We are here tonight representing all ch,” she stumbled, “all children in Manhattan Beach asking the city council to consider banning the Styrofoam and plastic bags.”
Another student walked up to the microphone.
“Californians use more than 19 billion plastic bags each year,” she said, taking a deep breath. “The average Californian uses 552 plastic bags per year.”
“We throw away over 600 plastic bags per second. This generates enough waste to stretch around the globe over 250 times.”
The line of children continued, each making new points.
“Plastic bags, especially the very light ones, blow around and easily find their way to our oceans through the storm drain,” he said, pausing, then added, “system.”
The council chuckled.
“These bags kill sea creatures that mistake them for food or become entangled in them,” another student said.
After each child made his or her point, one girl chirped, “So do you think we can do it?”
“Yes, we can!” the students shouted in unison. The crowd erupted in applause.
“We should just put that on consent,” one councilmember joked.
The kids began to shuffle out. “We’re going to have a great discussion tonight on Mansionization if you want to stay,” another councilmember called out to them.
What followed this humble performance was a three-year legal battle that crossed its finish line last week in front of the California Supreme Court. Those elementary school kids scored the victory – the city of Manhattan Beach was able to enact a plastic bag ban.
A history Early in June of 2008, Lindy Coe-Juell, assistant to the city manager at the time, made a presentation to the council on the plastic bag ban. She also announced that two hours prior, she had received a letter from the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition threatening legal action if the city passed a plastic-ban ordinance. That night, six community residents and business leaders spoke out in favor of the ban.
A month and a half later, the city council passed the ordinance banning the use of plastic carry-out bags and requiring that paper bags provided by local businesses be recyclable.
The coalition of plastic bag retailers and a plastic bag recycling company subsequently sued the city, alleging that the ban did not meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. It argued that the ban “was based on misinformation and would increase the use of paper bags, with negative environmental consequences,” according to court documents.
The city argued that “there would be no increase from those establishments already using paper bags, that some consumers would switch from plastic to reusable bags, that some would recycle their paper bags, and that the number of Manhattan Beach consumers is small enough that the increase in the regional solid waste stream caused by discarded paper bags would be insignificant,” according to court documents.
A series of decisions and appeals ensued, until the case was finally brought to the state Supreme Court.
Last week, the high court ruled to uphold the plastic bag ban in Manhattan Beach, reversing rulings by two lower courts that required the city to prepare an environmental impact report before implementing the ban.
“Our streets, water and ocean are the number one things residents care about,” said Councilmember Richard Montgomery, who served as mayor both when the ordinance was originally passed in 2008, and last week when the ordinance prevailed in front of the Supreme Court. “They don’t want to see plastic bags in the water or down the street.”
The small city, with a population just over 33,000, argued that the retail sector wouldn’t cause a significant increase in paper bag production and would not pose a threat to the ocean, wildlife, historical resources or human beings, according to court documents. An initial study noted that the ordinance would decrease plastic bag litter in the city and the ocean.
There are 217 licensed retail stores in the city that might use plastic bags, but the ban will only affect those that are more than 5,000 square feet – an estimated 10 businesses. While local mom and pop shops will not be affected, the city hopes these businesses will shift from plastic to reusable bags.
The Supreme Court ruled that Manhattan Beach is too small to have been required to prepare a full-blown environmental impact report, which could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, for a larger city, the impact might have been different.
Not everyone is ecstatic about the ruling. “Manhattan Beach managed to pass a plastic bag ban without doing an environmental review of any kind of quality,” said Stephen Joseph, attorney for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition. “The losers are the environment, and the citizens of Manhattan Beach.”
Joseph, however, sees light in the court’s decision. “The court confirmed we have standing to file these cases and the court confirmed that, except for very small cities under special circumstances, environmental impact reports must be done,” he said.
Los Angeles County recently completed an environmental impact report, which drew the conclusion that the impact of a plastic bag ordinance “from a very conservative worst-case scenario…may have the potential to be cumulatively significant” in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. With regards to air quality, biological resources, water quality and utility and service systems, the impact of a plastic bag ban in the county would not be significant.
The next stepManhattan Beach city council plans to roll out the ordinance in January 2012. Before that, it will give away reusable bags and host education sessions for residents and businesses alike on how to curb the single-use bag addiction.
While small businesses aren’t affected by the ban, the city council hopes that the ordinance will also cause small businesses to question their use of plastic bags. “We’re not trying to be oppressive here, we are showing the public that we have a choice,” Montgomery said. “When (the ban) goes into effect, you’ll see a shift in smaller stores.”
Paper or plastic?
It’s not all that simple. As it turns out, there are cons to both.
Paper is biodegradable, and plastic is not. “(Paper) can be taken care of much more easily in the environment than plastic,” said Mel Suffet, professor at the environmental science and engineering program at UCLA. “Plastic in the ocean doesn’t degrade and sometimes there have been problems with plastic entangling with seabirds as well as fish in the ocean.”
Mark Gold of Heal the Bay, an organization that conducts about 500 beach clean-ups annually, notes that plastic bag litter is ubiquitous, whether in the ocean, on streets and trees or in rivers. “It can be consumed by a wide variety of marine life, most notably sea turtles because they look like jellyfish,” Gold said.
Montgomery noted that as a coastal city, it’s important to protect the ocean and sea life. “It’s important for the coast to have this ban because we’re the ones that have the beach to protect, the ocean to protect,” Montgomery said.
Plastic can reach the ocean through storm drains as well, Suffet said. “The storm drains empty into the ocean so material like plastic can get in the ocean another way as opposed to just in a beach area,” Suffet said.
Paper, however, is more expensive to produce and costly to forest life, experts say. “You don’t want to deplete the forest making the paper any more than necessary,” Suffet said.
Paper production also increases greenhouse gas emissions, experts say. Some argue that’s not a critical argument. “I think that the argument with greenhouse gases is not a critical argument in terms of the harm that and more energy it takes for plastic to be disposed of,” Suffet said.
How will environmentalists, experts and fifth-graders all respond to the question: paper or plastic?
The answer is neither.
“The best way is to have people bring their own bags to the supermarket, like I do, and put groceries in their own bags,” said Mel Suffet. “That’s the optimum solution to the problem.”
The Manhattan Beach city council agrees. “It’s time for a conservation ethic,” Montgomery said, according to a press release. “We think the right answer to the question ‘paper or plastic’ is ‘neither, I brought my own.’”