Legal, Plastic Pollution
September 19 2011

Marin County Wins Over the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition in Court

by Angela Howe

On September 15, 2011, Marin County Superior Court issued its ruling upholding the Marin County plastic bag ban in the case entitled Save The Plastic Bag Coalition v. County of Marin.  The Court ruled that Marin County acted properly in relying upon a “categorical exemption” from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), since the intent of the ordinance is to "maintain, restore and enhance natural resources and the environment generally based upon substantial evidence that it will reduce the County's contribution of oil-based plastic waste as well as paper waste to landfills; reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in general; reduce the amount of plastic and paper litter in the environment; and reduce degradation of the marine environment and harm to marine wildlife."

The Marin County ordinance specifically provides that retail stores in unincorporated parts of the County are banned from providing single-use plastic bags and must charge a reasonable fee, no less than five cents, for single-use paper bags.  The Ordinance is set to go into effect on January 1, 2012. It also requires that merchants have reusable bags for purchase at their stores.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition argued that the County was not entitled to rely on the CEQA exemption for this ordinance.  However, the Court found that the County acted reasonably in doing so, based upon the substantial evidence in support of the ordinance.  According to the ruling, the Marin County's research on the subject showed that all single-use shopping bags have severe environmental impacts; that single-use plastic bags do not readily decompose; that numerous studies have documented the prevalence of single-use plastic bags littering the environment and blocking storm drains and fouling beaches; that plastic bags are a significant source of marine debris and hazardous to marine animals and birds which confuse these bags as a source of food and result in injury or death; that of all single-use bags, plastics have the greatest impacts on litter and marine life; that single-use paper bags result in greater emissions, water consumption and ozone production; and that from an overall environmental and economic perspective, the best alternative to single-use bags is reusable bags. The Court also recognizes that studies have shown that banning plastic bags and placing a fee on paper bags will dramatically reduce the use of both bags.  Therefore, the ban on plastic/fee on paper ordinance is an effective method for addressing the problems caused by single-use bags.

In further supporting the County's actions, the Court states, "indeed, this case is a good example of Voltaire's famous admonition not to throw out the good in search of the perfect.  Eliminating single-use plastic bags is a valiant and important move to protect the environment and restore and enhance natural resources."

The categorical exemption may be a good method for California cities and counties to comply with CEQA for their bag bans.  However, we are still expecting an appeal of this decision by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, despite the fact that they continue to lose in court when fighting the movement of bag bans across the state.