Star Advertiser: Don’t backslide; ban plastic bags

Honolulu Star Advertiser | Editorial | Our View | June 6, 2017

What’s the result of a halfhearted effort to eliminate a bad habit? More than likely, the habit lingers on and gets worse.

That’s why the City Council should reject the latest version of Bill 59 introduced by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, chairwoman of the Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee. It would require retailers to charge customers at least 10 cents for every reusable plastic or recyclable paper bag offered at the checkout counter, with the proceeds going back to the business. Beyond that, it does little to close a loophole in Oahu’s plastic bag ban.

The Council should instead support Councilman Brandon Elefante’s version of the bill. In addition to the bag fee, it calls for plastic bags to be phased out entirely by Jan. 1, 2020, leaving paper bags as an option. The most effective way to reduce the presence of environmentally unfriendly plastic bags here? Simply stop offering them during point-of-sale transactions.

Five years ago Hawaii became the first state nationwide in which each county had in place a ban on single-use plastic bags at groceries and retail shops. However, when the Oahu measure took effect in July 2015, it became apparent that a loophole in the law allows businesses to offer “reusable” plastic sacks that are slightly thicker than the banned filmy bags.

It’s no surprise that business groups such as the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Hawaii Food Industry Association back Fuku­naga’s version, which allows indefinite use of the thicker bags and opportunity to pocket the bag fee.

Tina Yamaki, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, has made the argument that visitors, who typically do not pack a reusable market bag, would be negatively affected by an actual plastic bag ban. To the contrary, it’s more likely that visitors would be pleased to comply with any concerted effort to help protect Hawaii’s natural beauty from the ugliness tied to plastics pollution.

Also, Yamaki has said characterizing allowable plastic bags as “single-use” is off the mark because people use them again as trash bin liners or to clean up animal waste, for instance. Regardless, their petroleum-based composition means they buck the natural biodegrading process — and that’s bad news for the environment.

Groups that undertake litter cleanups say with each passing year, more and more plastics are aggregating on our beaches. Drifting bags can block storm drains and runoff infrastructure. In nearshore waters, harmful plastic wads can end up in the stomachs of marine and stream wildlife.

Both versions of Bill 59 would rightly ban “compostable” plastic bags from checkout counters since Oahu lacks the commercial composting facility needed to cleanly break them down.

However, both versions are overly optimistic in reasoning that by charging at least 10 cents for each bag, customers will quickly say “no” to any type of checkout counter offering. If the Council wants to see a dramatic rise in shoppers toting their own Earth-friendly bags, bump up the fee to 25 cents, 50 cents, or even a dollar.

One thin dime, which is easy for most of us to shrug off at the checkout counter, represents a feeble effort on the city’s part. What’s more: businesses can already charge bag fees. And in many stores that do, you’ll see some shoppers carrying their own green bags from home and at least as many opting to pay the nickel or dime fee for checkout bags.

Further, in stores that have enacted their own real-deal plastic bag bans, such as Target, business booms as usual. The switch away from plastics is possible.

As Oahu’s weak ban nears completion of its second year, the City Council must seize this opportunity to close the law’s gaping loophole by putting in place the 2020 sunset deadline on plastic bags. Period.

Oahu’s spectacular yet fragile environment deserves much better than halfhearted legislation.