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Paper or Plastic? Coalition Sacked in Manhattan Beach Bag Ban

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California courts typically hear preservation cases asking the judiciary to intervene on behalf of endangered animals or vegetation. Lest anyone question the court's commitment to topic diversity, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion on Thursday in Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach (Save the Plastic Bag).

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a commercial group that highlights the environmental impact of bags, sued the city of Manhattan Beach in August 2008 to bar the city from enforcing a new "point-of-sale plastic carry-out bag" ban until the city commissioned a full environmental impact report (EIR) in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The city responded that the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition lacked standing to bring the suit because it did not meet the heightened scrutiny requirements for standing established in Waste Management of Alameda County, Inc. v. County of Alameda (Waste Management).

The court's opinion in Save the Plastic Bag explicitly rejects Waste Management's holding that a corporation must satisfy a heightened level of scrutiny to assert public interest standing and bring a citizen suit under the CEQA. Though the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition won the standing battle, it lost the bag ban war. The California Supreme Court upheld the Manhattan Beach bag ban, noting that "common sense" dictated that a plastic bag ban in a city of less than 40,000 would have a minimal impact on the environment.

The ruling opens the door for corporate citizens to demand EIRs for policy changes in larger cities where a policy's environmental impact is greater. The decision may also prove significant in permitting standing for corporate plaintiffs should the legislature resurrect last year's plastic bag ban proposal.

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