Star Advertiser: City Council bills would shut bag-ban loopholes

Honolulu Star Advertiser| By Gordon Y.K. Pang | June 5, 2017

Honolulu City Council members Wednesday will consider two different versions of a bill aimed at closing loopholes in Oahu’s existing plastic bag ban: one supported by business interests and the other by environmental groups.

The latest version of Bill 59 (2016) would require retailers to charge customers at least 10 cents for every reusable plastic or recyclable paper bag issued at checkout, with the proceeds going back to the business. Introduced by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, chairwoman of the Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee, the draft also specifies that the city auditor is to submit to the Council by Jan. 1, 2019, a report evaluating the bag fee’s effectiveness.

A different version being offered by Honolulu City Councilman Brandon Elefante, original author of the bill, also would require merchants to charge 10 cents for plastic or paper bags distributed at checkout. But it calls for plastic bags to be phased out entirely by Jan. 1, 2020, leaving paper bags as an option.

Both versions would eliminate compostable bags from the list of things that are allowed, and both would continue to allow woven, multiple-use plastic bags to be sold.

Elefante first introduced the bill to shore up the existing plastic bag ban. Since the law went into effect July 1, 2015, some retailers have continued to use plastic bags — just of the thicker variety, as allowed. The law bans distribution of plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick, so some merchants have switched to bags that are 3 mils or thicker.

Business groups, including the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Hawaii Food Industry Association, all support Fuku­naga’s version, which continues to allow the thicker bags indefinitely as long as customers pay a dime for each of them.

Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said her group opposes a blanket ban and believes both businesses and consumers need to be given more options.

Visitors to Hawaii, especially, would be negatively affected because they don’t typically pack a reusable market bag, she said.

“We’ve got to take that into account,” she said.

Allowing businesses to charge for bags will help encourage more customers to bring in their own reusable sacks, she said.

Yamaki said it’s also a mischaracterization to call the allowable plastic bags “single-use” items. Many people use them subsequently for such things as lining their trash bins or cleaning up animal waste, she said.

Paper bags cost more for merchants, and that needs to be factored into the equation, as well, Yamaki said. It’s also questionable whether paper bags are better for the environment. Yamaki said she’s seen research showing at least some plastic bags biodegrade more readily than paper.

Environmental leaders, however, contend there should be a total ban at some point soon and that Elefante’s version offers a reasonable timeline. Several said it’s simply the powerful lobbying efforts by business interests that have blocked a blanket ban.

“It’s greed, when it comes down to it,” said Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. “Business interests are more interested in the short-term gain rather than the long-term consequences of using a plastic bag that’s made out of material that lasts forever yet is used for only a few minutes.”

Continuing to allow the thicker plastic bags indefinitely is a bad idea because they are actually worse for the environment since they take longer to break down, he said. Pacarro said that in beach cleanups in recent weeks, he’s found at least two that appear to have been bitten by a fish, turtle or other sea creature.

Retailers can’t argue that using paper bags is cost-­prohibitive because they could charge consumers 10 cents each and pocket the profit, Pacarro said.

Rafael Bergstrom, the Surf­rider Foundation’s Oahu chapter coordinator, said the 2020 sunset date for plastic bags gives retailers ample time to use up existing stock.

To continue allowing the thicker bags indefinitely legitimizes their use and could result in more of them being distributed, he said. “We’re saying, ‘They’re now acceptable and you can pay to pollute,’” he said, adding that even those businesses that now don’t use them might begin doing so if they can charge for them.

Bergstrom took issue with Yamaki’s suggestion that paper is less biodegradable than some plastic bags. “Plastic does not biodegrade; their chemical makeup does not allow it,” he said.

Environmental groups knew the initial law allowed for thicker bags, but expected that such loopholes would go away with subsequent legislation, Bergstrom said.

Jodi Malinoski, Oahu coordinator for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, also maintains Elefante’s version strikes a good balance and encourages people to take reusable sacks when they shop.

“The lack of consensus between Council members is ultimately what’s holding up Oahu’s plastic bag ban, and it’s unfortunate because we are an island community where marine plastic pollution is a growing problem,” Malinoski said.