The City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday that bans single-use plastic and paper bags, but allows retailers to sell “green” paper bags for at least a dime. Due to the passage of Proposition 26 with its chilling impact on government’s ability to create and raise fees, Santa Monica abandoned its original ordinance, which would have put the paper-bag fee at a quarter with some of the revenue coming back to the city. Instead, leaders opted to model their bill after L.A. County’s recently approved ban.
Fifty people came out to support the bag ban ordinance, about 25 students with Santa Monica High School Team Marine teacher Ben Kay and 25 attendees from environmental groups and the general public. As you might have expected, the students stole the show. Dressed in costumes ranging from Bag Man to Straw Student to Lid Lady to Bottle Boy, the students came out during finals week to advocate for the bag ban. In a proud moment for me, my son Zack, an ocean swimmer and three year co-president of the Heal the Bay Surfrider Club, testified in support of the ordinance. Zack reminded council members that he started testifying to them as a freshman. Now he’s a graduating senior.
Santa Monica is the undisputed greenest city in California (OK, Berkeley will dispute that). How did it take its leaders nearly four years to ban single use bags? If you guessed ongoing litigation threats from the Coalition to Save the Plastic Bag (an advocacy group with members from the American Chemistry Council and the plastic bag manufacturers), then you’ve been paying attention.
Santa Monica spent a considerable amount of money completing its own EIR as well as paying for a Master Environmental Assessment that cities and counties around the state are using for their bag ban EIRs. The action Tuesday night, the eighth ban in the state (hours after Marin County approved a similar ban), really helped pave the way for a standardized environmental review approach to combat litigation threats.
The next battlefield in the fight to ban harmful bags is the biggest one in Southern California: the city of Los Angeles. In order for these bans to be effective in the region, the city of L.A. needs to join the county, Long Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu by banning single-use plastic bags as soon as possible.
Stephen Joseph, the hired mercenary for the coalition, made it clear in his comment letter and calls to the City Attorney’s Office that coalition members were planning on suing. Surprisingly, he agreed with Heal the Bay in a call to use the county’s reusable bag definition. This included a requirement that reusable bags can’t contain toxic substances like lead and cadmium in toxic amounts. There are also durability (carry 10 kilograms at least 125 times) and washability requirements too. The council made these changes.
Another change that resulted from Joseph’s comments is what I call the “Bay Cities” amendment. The draft ordinance took the extraordinary step of banning plastic bags in restaurants for takeout food, except hot food or liquids that posed a safety risk. Because of polluters’ complaints on the ambiguity of the bag ban’s application to restaurants, City Hall opted to ostensibly remove the restaurant requirements.
This may let places like the Bay Cities Italian Bakery & Deli (my favorite local food establishment since I was at Samohi) continue giving out thousands of plastic bags each week. We all know that a Godmother is too good for a plastic bag anyway, so I’m sure that Bay Cities will set a good example, with the encouragement of Santa Monica and my Heal the Bay officemates.
I had the honor of testifying right before Joseph. I decided to skip testimony on the environmental impacts of plastic bags and instead focus on the coalition and the ACC’s dubious record on killing bag ban legislation and legislation to eliminate carcinogens in baby and toddler products (an example was BPA in baby bottles).
Why should Santa Monica, any city or the state of California listen to these guys on their concerns about lead and cadmium in reusable bags or the pathogen regrowth potential on unwashed reusable bags when many of the same polluters are spending millions opposing toxics legislation? I must have caught Joseph a little off guard with this line of testimony because the best he could come up with was some off-the-wall statement that the Pacific plastic gyre doesn’t even exist. It was nice to see the usually glib and cocky attorney flummoxed at the podium. That may have been a first.
His actions also reflected the fact that Santa Monica leaders made it clear that they are ready for a court fight. The city attorneys followed the California Environmental Quality Act to the letter of the law. They made the changes necessary to strengthen their case in court if the coalition decides to sue. And the City Council made it clear that Santa Monica is not a city you want to mess with in court over pollution issues. Ask the petroleum industry how well it fared on the Charnock MTBE contamination effort. Some $250 million in settlements later, City Hall is about to begin relying on local groundwater for the first time this century.
The bag ban will go into effect a month after the council completes the formality of approving the ordinance on second reading. However, the subsequent six months will be used by City Hall to educate retailers. The ban won’t be enforceable until September. Tuesday marked another big win for the environment, but I can’t help but think that the Coalition to Ban the Plastic Bag bought enough time to sell about 100 million additional bags in Santa Monica.
Mark Gold is president of Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting Santa Monica Bay.