Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach

(2011) 52 Cal.4th 155

The California Supreme Court ruled that petitioners, a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers and distributors, would qualify for public interest standing and rejected the holding in Waste Management of Alameda County, Inc. v. County of Alameda (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 1223 that held corporations to heightened scrutiny when they file citizen suits. Here, the Court concluded that corporations, absent compelling policy reasons to the contrary, should be as free as natural persons to litigate in the public interest.

On the merits, the Court’s decision — whether the petitioner was required to prepare an EIR based on the effect of its ordinance banning plastic bags — was more narrowly tailored and appeared to be driven more by common sense than doctrine. The Court reversed the lower courts which held that the petitioner had to prepare an EIR before implementing the ban, holding that substantial evidence and common sense supported the petitioner’s determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect. Therefore, a negative declaration was sufficient. The Court did emphasize that its conclusions were largely influenced by the very small size of the City of Manhattan Beach, and added the caveat that “the analysis would be different for a ban on plastic bags by a larger governmental body, which might precipitate a significant increase in paper bag consumption.”  In reaching its conclusions, the Court repeatedly emphasized that in CEQA, the analysis should focus on the local environment. While the Court stressed that the focus and depth of the analysis must be on local impacts, CEQA does require a consideration of impacts outside the boundaries of the project area, if such impacts will occur, but it does not mean that agencies are required to conduct “exhaustive analysis of all conceivable impacts a project may have in areas outside its geographical boundaries.”

[TLG counsel of record for amicus curiae: Ashle T. Crocker]