The Surfrider Foundation could emerge victorious twice Tuesday night in its effort to have coastal cities ban the use of plastic bags, as city councils in both Dana Point and Laguna Beach have the issue on their agendas.
But the bans will not pass without opposition from grocery store owners, who say banning plastic bags would sharply increase their costs, and from limited-government advocates, who say the bans would infringe on personal freedoms.
Environmentalists and marine debris officials say plastic bags are a major source of litter along the coastline and can lead to the deaths of coastal animals. They say fish, birds, dolphins and other marine life can eat the bags or become entangled in them, two scenarios that can lead to death.
"In addition to being unseemly litter on the beach, it's also very hazardous to marine life and the ocean ecosystem," said Angela Howe, legal director for the Surfrider Foundation.
If Dana Point and Laguna Beach approve the bans Tuesday night, they would be joining a growing list of California cities — 17 by the California Coastal Commission's count — that have prohibited plastic bags in recent years. As Dana Point's experience shows, however, the issue is far from settled.
In September, the Dana Point City Council voted 4-1 to have its staff prepare a plastic bag ban. But when the proposed ban was placed on the City Council agenda in December, a flood of communication from both proponents and opponents forced the city to postpone the item.
One of the most prominent opponents was Assemblywoman Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point), who wrote an editorial alluding to the ban as a "nanny state" law that would increase grocery bills, restrict bag choice and add enforcement costs for the city.
"Does the city really want to spend valuable taxpayer money and use city resources to enforce a bag tax in perpetuity?" she wrote.
Howe countered that a ban could save money for local governments, which already spend to clean up the beach and deal with the unintended consequences of the litter.
She also said it would cost stores less money in the long term because people would start using reusable bags instead of the store having to constantly provide plastic bags.
"From our perspective, we definitely think this is going to lower costs if people bring reusable bags," because stores won't have to keep purchasing them, Howe said.
The damage that discarded plastic bags do to coastal environments is well established, say state and federal officials.
"Plastic bags are a major issue that we confront every year on our annual coastal cleanup day," said Eben Schwartz, marine debris programs manager for the Coastal Commission. He said last year's volunteers gathered 64,000 plastic bags statewide during the three-hour cleanup.
Schwartz and others say that while it's difficult to know the full extent of plastic bags' impact on sea life, there have been documented cases of marine mammals and sea turtles dying as a result of ingesting plastic bags or becoming entangled in them.
"Like any other type of debris, if there were less of it, there would be less potential" of it being ingested by marine life, said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine debris program.
Additionally, Schwartz added, the toxins used to produce plastic bags have prompted concern over plastic's impact on marine ecosystems.
But Dana Point Councilman Bill Brough, who is Harkey's chief of staff, isn't convinced that an outright ban is the solution. Brough's was the sole dissenting vote against drafting the ordinance.
While "we're a coastal community and we're stewards of our oceans," Brough said, "I really don't think plastic bags are the No. 1 culprit."
Brough believes the regulations could lead to far more serious rules. "What's next? Are they going to ban what we eat, what we listen to?" he asked. "I don't think it's the city's role."
Instead of a ban, Brough advocates educating the public about proper litter disposal and prefers to take a holistic approach to revising the city's trash ordinance.
"This is not the economy to be putting additional burdens on businesses," he added.
Other Dana Point City Council members did not return messages seeking comment.
A survey of grocery store managers in Dana Point found a mixed reception to the proposal, with some saying it would greatly increase costs and slow down checkout lines. One supermarket manager, however, said the ban "would be a great idea" and would increase costs only by 3 to 5 cents per bag.