City should get serious about plastic bag ban

Honolulu Star-Advertiser |  May 8, 2017

Editorial| Our View

Introduced by Councilman Brandon Elefante, Bill 59’s initial focus was to phase out the so-called reusable plastic bags by 2020 and also ban compostable plastic bags from checkout counters since Oahu lacks the commercial composting facility needed to cleanly break them down.

It’s frustrating to see those worthy objectives put aside in favor of a bill amendment to instead require retailers to charge at least 10 cents for all reusable and compostable plastic bags as well as recyclable paper bags starting in July 2018.

At a Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee meeting last week, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who proposed the amendment and is the committee’s chairwoman, advanced her draft of the bill for final reading. The bill could be placed on this week’s full Council meeting agenda.

The amendment’s supporters maintain that as those 10-cent fees pinch pocketbooks, more consumers will carry reusable bags and more frequently say “no” to any type of checkout counter offering. That’s not a sure bet. Businesses can already charge bag fees. And in many stores that do, you’ll see some shoppers carrying their Earth-friendly bags from home and at least as many opting to pay the nickle or dime fee for checkout bags.

The best way to reduce the presence of plastic bags here is to stop offering them to customers during point-of-sale transactions.

Fukunaga’s amendment is pitched as a sort of compromise between business and environmental interests. She told committee members: “This issue isn’t simply one of environmental protection, but it’s also a concern relating to business survivability. We want this to be something that businesses as well as community stakeholders can live with and be supportive of.”

Such waffling, however, merely undermines the purpose of environmental protection.

The Surfrider Foundation and other groups that undertake litter cleanups say with each passing year we’re seeing more and more plastics aggregating on our beaches. Drifting bags can block storm drains and runoff infrastructure. In nearshore waters, the non-biodegradable wads can end up in the stomachs of marine and stream wildlife. For a glimpse at a big-picture problem that affects Pacific waters, consider the marine trash vortex known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a portion of that toxic soup spans waters between Hawaii and and California.

After the committee meeting, Elefante noted: “It’s kind of embarrassing that our city and county does not have a strong ordinance in place like some of our neighboring counties.” Indeed.

A few months ago, Elefante had pushed to see Honolulu’s thickness threshold for reusable plastic bags bumped up to at least 3 mils — roughly the thickness of a heavyweight contractor trash bag. According to environmental groups watching bans elsewhere, 4 mils seems to be the point at which retailers find little economic sense in distributing such bags. The standard on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island is at least 3 mils. Honolulu’s thickness threshold for reusable plastic bags is now 2.25 mils.

Elefante said he plans to introduce a floor draft to add his amendments to the bill. As Oahu’s ban nears completion of its second year, instead of creating more gaps in the existing law, it’s hoped that efforts move toward a true single-use plastic grocery bag ban. The promise of a cleaner and healthier island is worth taking on the task in earnest.