Legal, Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
December 17 2012

Surfrider Foundation Supports Los Angeles County Bag Ban in Court

by Angela Howe

Surfrider Foundation, by and through our Los Angeles County Chapters and along with a coalition of environmental groups, filed an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in support of Los Angeles County in Schmeer et al. v. County of Los Angeles.  In this case, the County of Los Angeles is being used by the Hilex Poly Co. and a few named individuals (“plastics industry”) to challenge their single-use bag ordinance passed in 2010, which puts a ban on single-use plastic bags and requires stores to sell each paper bag for 10 cents.  The plastics industry is waging a Prop 26 challenge against the ordinance’s requirement that stores sell single-use paper bags for ten cents because, as their argument goes, Prop 26 requires a 2/3 vote of the population to approve local ordinances that put a “tax” on goods.  In defense of their ordinance, the County argues that its bag ban measure was not a “tax” but merely required that the regulated stores collect the estimated price for single-use paper bags instead of give them away for free.  Fortunately, the Superior Court agreed with the County and validated the ordinance.  But the plastics industry appealed that case.  This is when Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay, Environment California Research and Policy Center, The 5Gyres Institute, and Seventh Generation Advisors jumped in to support the County.

The amicus brief submitted by our environmental coalition, and written by the UCLA Environmental Law Clinic, speaks to the purpose and efficacy of local bag bans.  Here are some of the more salient points in the brief:

1) Litter is a costly problem for municipalities. According to the California Department of Transportation, state and local governments in California spend over $375 million per year on litter prevention and cleanup.  (Don’t Trash California, CalTrans, Facts at a Glance.

2) Single-use plastic bag litter is a major source of coastal pollution.  Over the past twenty-five years, plastic bags have been one of the top items collected on International Coastal Cleanup Day.  (Ocean Conservancy, Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean (2011) p. 5.)   The Ocean Conservancy reports that, on International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2010, plastic bags were the most commonly collected item after cigarettes and plastic bottles, accounting for 10 percent of total debris items collected worldwide. (Ocean Conservancy, Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean (2011)).

3) Plastic bag litter is harmful to wildlife.  Microplastics pose threats through chemical leaching to the more than 180 species of marine wildlife that have ingested them (Teuten et al., Transport and Release of Chemicals from Plastics to the Environment and to Wildlife (2009) 364 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2027, 2036, 2040-42).

4) State and local mandated recycling efforts have failed. Four years after California Assembly Bill No. 2449 instituted a pilot program requiring most large California retailers to host in-store plastic bag recycling programs, the statewide plastic bag recycling rate has remained virtually unchanged.  (Californians Against Waste, The Failure of Plastic Bag Recycling (Feb. 6, 2012)).

5) Bag bans are effective.  Since the Los Angeles County ordinance was put into effect, it has resulted in a 94 percent reduction in single-use bag usage at large retailers and pharmacies, including the elimination of all single-use plastic bags and a 25 percent reduction in paper bags. (L.A. County Dept. of Public Works, Implementation of the County of Los Angeles Plastic and Paper Carryout Bag Ordinance (Nov. 2012) p. 1). Eleven months after the City of San Jose enacted it’s ban, its 2012 litter surveys indicate that plastic bag litter has been reduced by “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods, when compared to [pre-ordinance] data . . . .”  

The environmental coalition that submitted the amicus brief hopes that it will prompt the Court of Appeal to set precedent to allow the successful trend of single-use bag bans and fees in the state of California to continue moving forward.