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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 27, 2007

Maui may ban plastic bags

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By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

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WAILUKU, Maui Maui would become the first county in the state to ban plastic shopping bags, under a council proposal that would initially target large retailers.

The county Recycling Office estimates that 50 million plastic shopping bags are used annually on Maui, or about 350 per resident. The bags are a major litter problem and when they blow into the ocean, they can harm marine animals that ingest or become entangled in them.

But business leaders and others wary of a ban say plastic bags don't litter, people do, and that other solutions are needed, including increased public education and recycling programs.

"It's a good start at addressing the issue, but the whole problem of plastics is too big to just take away plastic bags and say it's going to solve the problem," said Dick Botti, president of the Hawaii Food Industry Association.

San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit plastic shopping bags in April, and similar measures are being considered in Boston, Baltimore and other cities.

Unlike the San Francisco law, which applies only to larger groceries and drugstores, the proposed Maui rule would affect all types of retailers with annual gross sales exceeding $250,000. After five years, the law would apply to retailers of all sizes.

Makawao Councilman Michael Molina, who drafted the bill, said he was inspired by the San Francisco law and by a desire to cut county costs.

Litter from plastic shopping bags is such a problem at the Central Maui Landfill in blustery Pu'unene that the county pays a contractor $180,000 a year to pick up stray bags in the area, Molina said.

Recycling is not economical, he added, because it costs about $4,000 per ton to collect plastic bags, with a return of only $50 per ton from selling recycled bags.

"It's a tax-dollar-saving issue on top of an aesthetics issue and an environmental issue," he said.

Under his proposal, businesses prohibited from providing customers with nonbiodegradable plastic bags at checkout would instead have to use compostable bags, recyclable paper bags or reusable bags.

Stores that distribute illegal bags could face fines of $100 to $1,000, which would be deposited in the county's fund to preserve open space and natural and cultural resources.

Maui County recycling coordinator Hana Steel said she thinks the public "would be quite receptive" to a ban on plastic bags.

"Because of wind conditions at the landfill, these bags are picked up and blown out to sea. We cannot change the wind but we can change our habits," Steel said.

Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce, said more discussion is needed to protect the public and businesses from increased costs that could result from a ban on plastic bags. Chamber members also would like any ordinance to include public education programs, improved recycling programs and a phased-in approach, she said.

Switching to biodegradable bags would increase business costs, according to Sheryl Toda, spokeswomen for the company that owns 29 Foodland and Sack N' Save supermarkets statewide. The stores, including the five on Maui, are addressing the plastic-bag issue in other ways, she said.

"We would like to encourage customers to bring in their own cloth or other reusable bags for their groceries, and we offer a 5-cent credit to customers for doing so," she said.

Honolulu Recycling Coordinator Suzanne Jones said the plastic-bag debate may be more critical on Maui because the bags end up at the landfill.

On O'ahu, plastic bags, which are a petroleum product, are burned along with other trash in the city's H-POWER garbage-to-energy plant.

"We don't have disposal or processing issues," Jones said.

Instead of a ban, Jones emphasized the need to prevent plastic bags from ending up as litter through public education and use of heavier bags that aren't so easily carried off by the wind.

"Ideally it would be lovely if we could get everyone to move toward the European custom of bringing your own cloth, net or canvas shopping bags," said Jones, acknowledging that past efforts to promote reusable shopping bags "didn't take" with consumers.

"But that was many years back and there's a different mindset about being 'green.' Maybe this is a good time," she said.

There's increasing evidence that reusable bags are catching on. Toda said an initial shipment of 10,000 reusable grocery bags sold out in four days at Foodland and Sack N' Save stores, and that another shipment is coming next month.

Customers may buy the bags for $1.99 with their Maika'i card.

Kaua'i County has joined with retailers to distribute reusable bags made from recycled plastic bottles. In the last fiscal year, the county used $13,000 in grant money from the state's beverage container redemption program to buy 2,000 bags that were given away at four small markets, said county recycling specialist Diane Rosenkranz.

The county plans to distribute more bags this year and broaden the program to larger retailers, Rosenkranz said.

"Everybody loves their bags," she said.

Steel said her recycling office also is handing out reusable bags to Maui consumers who call 808-270-7880.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.