The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to take single-use plastic bags off legal life support, in defiance of the threat of lawsuits from the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (STPBC), based in San Francisco.
The law, which changes Chapter 5.48 of county codes to ban these bags across the unincorporated county, will go into effect within the next six months.
The ordinance to ban plastic bags was originally written in 2009, but the board sidelined it for nearly two years to observe a legal battle between Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles County and the plastic bag coalition. Manhattan Beach won the right to keep its plastic bag ban on the books this summer in the California Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Santa Cruz County paid $100,000 for a mitigated negative resolution to study the environmental impacts of the ban. This report, along with the Supreme Court decision, makes supervisors confident they will be able to defeat any challenge to the move to reusable bags.
“We have seen that communities in California have been able to successfully maintain their ordinance,” Supervisor John Leopold said. “We have worked very hard to follow all aspects of environmental laws ... and we are very prepared to defend this ordinance.”
The board received several letters from the STPBC over the past week threatening future lawsuits on a variety of bases. One letter claimed that because “Santa Cruz County is much larger than Manhattan Beach,” the effects of the ban would be much more drastic and require a full environmental impact report investigating the results of a switch to reusable and paper bags. No representatives of the STPBC were at the meeting Tuesday, and more than a dozen residents and environmental activists spoke out in support of the ban.
Maureen Smith, of Aptos, said plastic bags aren't used for take-out food at many restaurants where she eats, and she hasn't had an issue with the change.
“There are aluminum containers, paper cups for liquid items. I think this is an important ordinance ...” Smith said.
The vote Tuesday requires a second reading, which will be done later this month. After the final, vote restaurants and retailers will have six months to switch to alternative packages, and fines of $200 are included in the ordinance as a last resort to persuade businesses to get rid of the bags.
Public Works Director John Presleigh said he hopes that won't be necessary. The most his department had to do in the ban of Styrofoam imposed in 2010 was to send a letter to a handful of businesses to “remind them of the ordinance.”
Most members of the STPBC are plastic bag manufacturers, according to their attorney, Stephen Joseph, but he refuses to release a list of the members to the public. One letter sent by Joseph claims that the population of Santa Cruz County is large enough to require a more lengthy environmental impact than the one the county got.
Supervisors are unsure how much it will cost to fight the STPBC in court, but Leopold said if it comes to that, they will take on the task with any resources they have available.
“Communities have to be able to stand up to large chemical lobbies,” Leopold said. “If we back down every time a large corporation tries to bully us, we will not be doing the work of the people of Santa Cruz.”