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(photo by Byron Kennerly)

CITY HALL Facing the threat of a lawsuit from a coalition of manufacturers, city officials on Tuesday delayed a long-anticipated vote to ban plastic bags.

An association by the name, SaveThePlasticBag.com, sent a letter to City Hall on Monday warning it would file a lawsuit that would force an Environmental Impact Report on the proposed prohibition of plastic bags if the City Council proceeded with the ban.

The group has already filed lawsuits against Manhattan Beach for a similar ordinance and Los Angeles County for its voluntary program to encourage grocers to curb the use of plastic bags, setting benchmarks that have to be met in order to prevent a ban from being instituted.

The Los Angeles Superior Court recently granted the group’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the Manhattan Beach ordinance from being enforced on the basis it is likely to succeed on the merits, according to Stephen Joseph, an attorney representing SaveThePlasticBag.com. A decision has not been made in the county lawsuit.

The local ordinance would prohibit the use of single-use plastic carry-out bags from all retail establishments and institutes a “Green Fee” on paper bag distribution at grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies only. The fee will be determined by city staff at a later date.

Environmentalists have for years been trying to convince city officials to ban plastic bags, pointing out that they typically end up in the Santa Monica Bay and are mistaken for food by sea animals.

The coalition claims that plastic bags have less of an environmental impact than paper bags, which would still be permitted in the city if the ordinance passes. It also argues that the banning of bags would lead to the loss of more than 4,000 American jobs at companies that manufacture plastic bags, adding that many of the cloth reusable sacks used at stores like Trader Joe’s are produced in China, which leads to another set of environmental impacts from the fuel and energy used to ship the products to the United States.

“Listen to the facts than stigmatizing plastic bags and getting everyone agitated and refusing to look at the facts,” Joseph said. “Don’t just sweep them under the carpet and say we know everything and don’t need to study anything.”

Dean Kubani, the head of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment at City Hall, said that he will meet with the City Attorney’s Office next week to determine which steps to take to avoid a lawsuit, weighing whether that would be a minor or in-depth report. City staff was originally going to request an exemption from conducting an environmental review, which is typically not required for policy decisions, Kubani said.

He added that City Hall was planning on reaching out to a start-up business that employs local veterans to make cloth bags using scraps.

“That is a very sustainable business,” he said.

Kubani said that he has done a full assessment on single-use bags, canvas bags and plastic reusable bags, studying the different environmental impacts, including the carbon footprint caused from transporting them.

“The reusable bag wins by a large margin,” he said. “It is durable and you can use it hundreds and hundreds of times.”

The delay in action by the council came as a disappointment to a group of Santa Monica High School students who stayed into the late hours on Tuesday to lobby for the ban. They included the “Plastic Bag Monster,” a student covered in plastic bags, and the “Cap Woman,” who was similarly decked out in plastic bottle caps.

“When this ‘ban was first discussed a couple of years ago, my liquid petroleum sweat started dripping and I was nagged by my mom for bad performance,” Andrew Brown, the Plastic Bag Monster, said. “What does she know, she’s just an old bag.”

Many of the students were from school environmental groups such as Team Marine and the Heal the Bay Club.

“This plastic bags ban is so important to keeping our oceans and beaches clean and to helping us expand our minds,” Megan Kilroy, a Samohi student said.

While the gathering at the council meeting was mostly in favor of the ordinance, several residents spoke against the ban, including a member of SaveThePlasticBag.com.

“I just really find it hard to believe if you look at the city’s goals for sustainability and their long-range plan, how this can be an alternative that is going to work,” Chandler Hadrada, a local business owner and member of the coalition, said.

Ella Bronstein, an environmentalist who helped start a recycling program at the University of Maryland during the 1970s, said that she reuses plastic bags to store items and as waterproof liners under plants.

“When you hear that less than 5 percent of single-use bags are recycled in California, it sounds terrible,” she said. “However most people now do recycle their bags.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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