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State High Court Backs Plastic Bag Ban

Ruling that the city of Manhattan Beach wasn't required to conduct a lengthy environmental study before passing its ban boosts other efforts, including in Marin, which faces a similar lawsuit.

The California Supreme Court gave a boost today to cities and counties seeking to bar stores from giving customers their purchases in plastic bags, including the .

The court unanimously ruled that the small city of Manhattan Beach wasn't required to conduct a lengthy environmental study before passing a law that prohibited stores from distributing plastic carryout bags.

"Substantial evidence and common sense support the city's determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect," Justice Carol Corrigan wrote in the ruling.

Manhattan Beach, with a population of about 34,000, passed the law in 2008. It was challenged by a group called the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, an organization supported by the plastic bag industry and founded by San Francisco attorney Stephen Joseph, a former Tiburon resident, in 2008.

The group argued that paper bags might be worse for the environment than plastic and said the city should have prepared a full environmental impact report, or EIR.

The group  on the same grounds against the County of Marin after the Board of Supervisors in late January  at grocery stores, drug stores and convenience stores in unincorporated Marin. While Fairfax has already passed a plastic bag ban, many other cities in Marin are hoping to use the county's ban as a blueprint for their own.

The state high court's ruling, issued in San Francisco, overturned decisions in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge and a divided appeals court said an EIR was needed.

The court didn't rule on whether larger cities would need to issue an EIR and noted that "the analysis would be different for a ban on plastic bags by a larger governmental body."

But Christian Marsh, a lawyer for the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties, said, "This is great news" for all cities because the ruling said that an EIR was not automatically required.

Instead, Marsh said, the decision indicates that environmental impacts must reach a certain threshold before a full study is required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

But Joseph said he is "delighted" with the ruling, saying that most of the bans that have passed since Manhattan Beach's in 2008 meet that threshold. He pointed to a line in the ruling that said "cumulative impacts should not be allowed to escape review when they arise from a series of small-scale projects" as evidence that EIRs are necessary where a number of entities in an area pass plastic bag bans.

Bay Area cities and counties that have either enacted or sought to enact some form of restrictions on plastic bags include San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Palo Alto, Fairfax and Marin and Santa Clara counties, according to an anti-plastic group called Californians Against Waste.

"It was a very big victory for us," Joseph said. "The only aspect that wasn't a victory was specific to Manhattan Beach itself. We'll keep demanding EIRs."

Marin County Counsel Patrick Faulkner could not be reached for comment.

--Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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