Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


In recent years, single-use plastic bag reduction ordinances have emerged as a lasting icon for the environmental movement. Despite fierce resistance from the plastics industry, premised primarily on the argument that such ordinances could potentially have harmful effects on the environment, the momentum to pass these ordinances remains strong. The plastics industry has spent millions lobbying against local ordinances and for statewide preemption of local ordinances, engaged in epic public relations campaigns, and sued or threatened to sue virtually every California municipality that has recently taken steps to adopt a plastic bag ordinance. Plastic bag manufacturers also sued a reusable bag manufacturer for “talking trash” about plastic bags. The seriousness with which the plastics industry is taking environmentalists’ attempts to restrict plastic bags demonstrates that this is a “tipping point” issue for the plastics industry, and the battle is far from over.

Part II of this Article explores the idea of plastic bag ordinances as an icon for a greater movement. Part III discusses types of plastic bag ordinances and briefly examines the most notable locations that have pursued each type. Part IV discusses how the plastic bag industry has used CEQA to defeat and delay local plastic bag ordinances in California. Part V examines the Manhattan Beach decision in detail and discusses what effect the decision may have on similar ordinances going forward. The Article concludes by discussing the social climate when the court decided the Manhattan Beach case, including legislation introduced at state and local levels, mobilization of advocacy groups focusing on plastic pollution, and concurrent litigation.