Surfrider Foundation members and activists have been extremely passionate in their involvement in our Rise Above Plastics program, which aims to reduce the harms of plastic pollution in our ocean by raising awareness of the problem and advocating for a reduction of single-use plastics and the recycling of all plastics. In fulfilling this advocacy component of the campaign, many local Chapters have been working to place bans on plastic bags through petitioning their local City Council (as has been done in San Francisco and Malibu, CA, Westport, CT, and Kaua’i, HI, for example) and for statewide and national legislation.

Over the past year, cities in California have been especially deterred from acting to pass these local ordinances because there is the potential to be sued by the “Save Our Plastic Bag Coalition,” a group comprised of plastic bag manufacturers. Despite the fact that the plastic bag has been widely considered a number one offender of the environment and our oceans, this manufacturers group has sued the City of Oakland and the City of Manhattan Beach for their failure to do an EIR when passing such a law. Even though the local ordinances are intended to be protective of the environment, the SOPBC contends that the environmental harms have not been properly assessed. The plaintiff in this case tries to frame the argument as a “paper vs. plastic” debate, even though cities like Manhattan Beach have coupled their local plastic bag bans with education and outreach on why reusable bags are best for the environment. The real debate should be single-use bag versus one-time use. The single-use plastic bag may be used for 5 minutes and it will persist in the ocean for over 500 years, if not forever.

In the recent appellate court case challenging the local ordinance, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach, 181 Cal. App. 4th 521 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2010), the City of Manhattan Beach took its argument to the Court of Appeal to defend their ordinance prohibiting the use of plastic bags by certain retailers, including grocery stores. Instead of completing a full EIR, the city issued a negative declaration regarding the need for an environmental impact report (EIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act, reasoning that the ordinance would not have a significant effect on the environment. The SOPBC challenged the ordinance, as they had promised to when the City Council was analyzing the issue. The trial court sided with the bag manufacturers, ruling that the ordinance could increase the use of paper bags, which may have a significant negative impact on the environment and require an environmental impact report. The appellate court agreed and affirmed the judgment.

It has been an odd position for Surfrider Foundation activists in California, who are used to employing the California Environmental Quality Act to pursue their environmental campaigns. Here, the law is perversely used against Surfrider’s efforts to protect the environment and help our oceans.

Luckily, many California Cities have united to address the plight of the plastic bag and their ability to regulate its usage in their own cities. They are intending to prepare a Master Environmental Assessment to be used as a foundational document to overcome any CEQA regulations governing the matter.

Surfrider will continue to petition and support municipalities in their acts to recognize the problem of plastic pollution and in their efforts to stem the flow of harmful pollution to our oceans.