Fate of SLO County's plastic bag ban in the hands of a judge

It could be late September before the county knows the legal fate of its ban on plastic shopping bags.

Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall heard nearly two hours of legal arguments Thursday morning on a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban, but he did not issue a ruling. A new ordinance is set to go into effect Oct. 1 that bans plastic shopping bags in most stores and requires a 10-cent fee for paper bags.

A group, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, has sued the county, saying the ban violates the California Environmental Quality Act. The group alleges that the county Integrated Waste Management Authority should have prepared a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of the new requirement before enacting the ban.

“This is the death of CEQA,” said Stephen Joseph, a San Francisco attorney for the plastic bag coalition. He called the ban an end-run around CEQA, which would open the door for other cities and counties to enact ordinances without full environmental review.

Attorneys for the waste board argued that a full-blown environmental analysis was not required because banning plastic bags helps the environment rather than hurts it. They cited a statewide report prepared by the group Green Cities California that shows that banning plastic bags and imposing a fee on paper bags is an effective means of encouraging shoppers to shift to reusable bags.

“We think it’s a matter of common sense,” said Ray Biering, an Avila Beach attorney representing the county waste board.

Joseph argued that the 10-cent fee for paper bags is not enough of an incentive for shoppers to stop using them. The environment would be hurt if people just switched to paper bags rather than reusable bags, particularly if other local governments followed San Luis Obispo County’s lead, he said.

The use of paper bags is more damaging to the environment than plastic bags unless the paper bags are used repeatedly — trees get cut down and lots of water is used in production of paper. Joseph said a fee of 25 cents would be more of a disincentive.

Much of the hearing consisted of Crandall questioning Joseph about his assertion that the county had not met the legal standard.

“I understand it, but I’m not overwhelmed by it,” Crandall told Joseph.

Crandall ended the hearing by asking Joseph to submit a letter of no more than three pages outlining the evidence of why bag bans like the one in San Luis Obispo could result in a cumulative impact that would damage the environment, particularly if adopted by other local governments.

Joseph has until Sept. 10 to file the letter. Biering said he expects Crandall to issue a ruling within two weeks of that deadline.

Some 50 local governments in California have adopted bag bans similar to San Luis Obispo County’s. The coalition, which is funded by plastics companies, is fighting the prohibitions, saying plastic bags do not endanger seabirds and other marine life as environmentalists contend.

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