The California Supreme Court upheld the right of cities to ban plastic bags, ruling Thursday that a full-scale environmental review may not always be needed to prohibit stores from giving bags to their customers.
Environmentalists lauded the unanimous decision, calling it a victory for environmental protection. But a lawyer for plastic bag makers said the manufacturers would continue to sue municipalities that impose bans without environmental impact reports.
The ruling overturned two lower court decisions and upheld a 2008 plastic bag ban by Manhattan Beach. Since that ban, nearly a dozen other local governments, including Los Angeles County, have voted to prohibit plastic bags, and other cities are considering such prohibitions.
"This is a great day for the Pacific Ocean," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, an environmental protection group. "Cities and counties can now move forward with plans to protect our environment — and to safeguard the significant portion of our economy that depends on a healthy ocean and beaches. "
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a group of plastic bag makers and distributors, which contended an environmental impact report was needed to impose bag bans.
Plastic bag bans have been approved by San Francisco, Long Beach, Malibu, Santa Monica, Marin County, San Jose and Calabasas in addition to Manhattan Beach and Los Angeles County.
The cost of such litigation and full-scale environmental review has frightened some cities away from banning plastic bags. If Manhattan Beach had lost the case, the city would have had to pay the industry's legal fees, lawyers in the case said.
In ruling for Manhattan Beach, the court said that "substantial evidence and common sense" showed the ban would not have significant environmental consequences, even though "the manufacture, transportation, recycling, and landfill disposal of paper bags entail more negative environmental consequences than do the same aspects of the plastic bag life cycle."
"While some increase in the use of paper bags is foreseeable, and the production and disposal of paper products is generally associated with a variety of negative environmental impacts," Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court, "no evidence suggests that paper bag use by Manhattan Beach consumers in the wake of a plastic bag ban would contribute to those impacts in any significant way."
James G. Moose, who represented Californians Against Waste, said the ruling "makes it more difficult for people in the industry to thwart environmentally benign regulations adopted by communities in California."
Christian Marsh, the lawyer for Manhattan Beach, said public agencies may now feel free to do only limited environmental reviews on small projects. "This is going to give local agencies a lot more latitude to approve these sorts of bans," Marsh said.
But the plastic bag industry took comfort from court language that suggested bans by larger municipalities may be subject to extensive environmental review. The court also ruled that the industry may challenge bag bans.
"We will continue to demand EIRs," said Stephen L. Joseph, an attorney for the industry.