To ban or not to ban: The debate over plastic bags rages on this summer on the West Coast.
Portland became the latest city to ban plastic bags last week, when its city council unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting large grocery stores and retailers with pharmacies from distributing single-use plastic shopping bags.
Taking effect Oct. 15, the ordinance will promote the use of reusable shopping bags and places no restrictions on paper bags. According to Mayor Sam Adams’ website, the city recognizes the environmental impacts of paper bags, but finds the manufacture and recycling of paper bags locally has other economic and environmental benefits.
The ordinance comes just a month after statewide legislation banning plastic bags and placing a fee on paper bags failed to advance out of the state Senate.
“This policy is a pragmatic approach to a real and seemingly insurmountable problem, and was shaped by a coalition of businesses, environmental groups and city staff, and informed by lessons from cities and nations that have already taken action on single-use plastic check-out bags,” Adams writes on his website.
Earlier in the month, Bellingham, Wash., a city near the Canadian border with a population of 80,000, adopted an ordinance banning plastic shopping bags at all retail establishments, excluding restaurants, and placing a 5-cent fee on paper bags. The legislation will go into effect next July and also requires stores to distribute paper bags that contain 40 percent recycled content.
Down in California, the state’s Supreme Court recently announced its decision in a case being carefully watched by those on both sides of the plastic bag debate. The court ruled in favor of the city of Manhattan Beach, upholding its plastic bag ban against a lawsuit by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition that said the city needed to undertake a lengthy review of the ordinance’s environmental impact to comply with state laws. The group says that a comprehensive study of the plastic bag ban is needed to determine any unintended environmental results such as increased paper bag use.
Concerned with the financial burden of potential litigation and carrying out costly environmental reviews, many California jurisdictions looking to pass similar legislation eagerly awaited the court’s ruling. But will the court’s decision set a precedent for future plastic bag bans?
“It’s a victory for Manhattan Beach’s ordinance and plastic bag bans in general, but it is unclear right now how far the victory will reach for ordinances in other jurisdictions,” says Sue Vang, policy associate at advocacy group Californians Against Waste.
But the group is hopeful that the court’s decision will pave the way for other local governments in the state to pass similar ordinances.
“We already know of many cities reaching out to Manhattan Beach for guidance, and we expect more jurisdictions to follow,” she says.
Stephen Joseph, counsel for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, says that the court’s ruling does not exempt cities larger than Manhattan Beach from carrying out environmental impact reports for their own plastic bag bans, as each ban would have different environmental effects. Joseph also says his group will continue to pursue litigation against cities and counties that do not undertake environmental studies of their bag bans.
Manhattan Beach, a Los Angeles-area city with a population of 34,000, will likely begin enforcing its plastic bag ban on January 1, according to the city’s website. Under its ordinance, all retail establishments and restaurants are prohibited from distributing plastic bags except produce bags and dry-cleaning bags. Stores must provide customers with 40-percent recycled-content paper bags.