If you thought the debate over the impact of plastic bags is one debate we’re already done with, you got it wrong. It’s far from being over thanks to Save The Plastic Bag Coalition, an organization that “is questioning and challenging the misinformation, myths, exaggerations, and hype spread by anti-plastic bag activists”. The coalition filed a suit earlier this month against the city of San Francisco, which expanded in February its 2007 ban on bags to include the use of single-use plastic bags at all businesses, including restaurants.
The coalition’s main legal argument was that the city didn’t conduct an environmental impact report (EIR) before enacting the measure, hence violating the California Environmental Control Act.
Besides the legal issue, they’re trying to prove two points: First, “paper and compostable bags are significantly worse for the environment than plastic bags.” Second, the 10-cent fee that the city wants businesses to charge for a paper or compostable carryout bag “is, or may be, far too low to act as an effective incentive to promote the use of reusable bags.” And so, the plastic or paper debate is back in full swing.
First, it is interesting to check out who this coalition with the interesting name, Save The Plastic Bag, actually is. According to their website, the coalition was formed in June 2008 with the sole purpose of informing decision-makers and the public about the environmental impacts of plastic bags, paper bags, and reusable bags. They say “the anti-plastic bag campaign is largely based on myths, misinformation, and exaggerations. We are responding with environmental truth.” Accordingly, on the website, you can find information, such as “what is really killing seas turtles. It is not plastic bags!” or ‘the oil myth’, explaining why it’s not true to claim that domestically produced plastic bags are made of oil.
The website also mentions that the coalition “is not and has never been connected with or financed by the American Chemistry Council or Progressive Bag Affiliates. We are a totally independent organization.” At the same time, they mention in an early document that “the founding members are Elkay Plastics and Command Packaging,” and that the group will include “plastic bag manufacturers, plastic bag distributors, retailers, and concerned citizens.” So I guess you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why the coalition was dissatisfied San Francisco’s decision to broaden its plastic bag ban.
And it’s not just San Francisco. A memorandum sent on March 8 by Stephen Joseph, a counsel for the coalition to California cities and counties, states that “Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (“STPB”) will sue every city or county that adopts an ordinance that regulates or bans plastic bags at any restaurant or “food facility.” He mentions there area a couple of other cases where the coalition filed a lawsuit, such as the case of Santa Cruz County, which was sued for banning plastic bags at restaurants. In response, the county repealed the ban, Joseph writes.
Joseph also mentions in the memorandum that the coalition is filing a lawsuit against Manhattan Beach to invalidate its restaurant ban. Yet, one detail he doesn’t mention is that California’s highest court has actually upheld the same ban. This case is actually mentioned in the lawsuit against the city of San Francisco because while the court exempted Manhattan Beach from conducting an environmental review, it said that “the analysis would be different for a ban on plastic bags by a larger governmental body, which might precipitate a significant increase in paper bag consumption.” Guess who is a larger governmental body? Yep, the city of San Francisco. At least according to the lawsuit.
Not surprisingly, the lawsuit against San Francisco includes a whole part trying to make the case that paper and compostable bags are “far worse for the environment than plastic bags.” If you’re still into this debate, I’m sure you will find this part interesting. Even if you’re one of those who believes ‘neither’ is the right answer to the paper or plastic question, you might find some interesting statements in the lawsuit, such as the part focusing on the question of how large the fee on non-plastic single-use bags should be. According to the lawsuit, in the original draft ordinance, the City of San Francisco was planning to increase the paper and compostable bag fee to 25 cents on July 1, 2014, yet the fee in the ordinance has been set on 10 cents with no increase.
This fee question is important because the new ban means there’s a good chance more paper bags will be used in San Francisco. The city believes the net impact will still be positive due to a 10-cent paper and compostable bag fee that will incentivize residents to carry reusable bags. But is this really the case? It’s certainly not clear.
It seems that the strategy of the coalition is to use the EIR as a tactical weapon. “We haven’t challenged anyone that’s done an EIR,” Joseph told the San Francisco Examiner. The reason the coalition might have chosen this tactic is that completing EIRs can take years and can be prohibitively costly for many municipalities, especially in California.
Now, it doesn’t mean that the process of conducting EIR is necessarily wrong, especially given the need for transparency when it comes to enacting a fee on single-use bags. But why does every municipality need to conduct a new report? Can’t they all use one report and make minor adjustments accordingly? This is for the court to decide. Let’s just hope it will finish the plastic or paper debate once and for all and let us move on.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.