Maui officials discuss upcoming plastic bag ban
By CHRIS HAMILTON
WAILUKU — Maui County residents and visitors go through 50 million plastic bags every year. That's right, said county Recycling Coordinator Hana Steel, 50 million.
It is so many bags that taxpayers shell out $150,000 a year for a private contractor just to pick up errant plastic bags at the Central Maui Landfill in Puunene, Steel said.
Steel, Maui County Environmental Coordinator Kuhea Paracuelles and Environmental Management Department Director Cheryl Okuma met with about 15 business owners and representatives recently at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku to discuss the controversial "plastic bag reduction" ordinance, or ban, which is set to go into effect Jan. 11, 2011.
Representatives from retail stores such as Safeway, Foodland and Pukalani Superette, said that although the plastic bag ban was approved in August 2008, the county hasn't made much of an effort until now to let them know how it works.
They also complained about a lack of conforming bags on the market, with a couple of them deadpanning about the "bag police" coming to get them. Even when recycled paper bags are available, the bags tend to cost several more cents each than their plastic predecessors, which adds up pretty fast, the business representatives said last week.
When Jan. 11 rolls around, no businesses will be able to provide plastic bags to customers at the point of sale for people to transport goods or groceries home or anywhere else, according to Ordinance No. 3587.
The only exception is if the plastic bag is made of reusable and durable materials, such as a mix of washable cloth or recycled plastic. Dozens of Maui County stores sell or give away reusable bags already.
Under the law, restaurants and grocery and department stores can send their customers home with paper bags, just as long as those paper bags are made out of 40 percent recycled paper or more and all of them can be recycled.
The ordinance, written by Deputy Corporation Counsel David Galazin, does not allow businesses to hand out plastic bags that are made out of compostable plasticlike materials, as some business owners believed initially.
Council Member Mike Molina said he introduced the bag ban, which the council unanimously passed, in order to reduce plastic bags — grocery and shopping bags or T-shirt bags, in particular — and mitigate plastic bags' impact on the environment. The bags not only stuff landfills but fly into the ocean, where sea life ingests and chokes on the insoluble materials. Plastic bags also require crude oil to make, which adds to America's reliance on foreign oil, Molina said.
While business leaders applauded the intent of the plastic bag ban, they said they worry about the costs to their businesses, especially considering the weak economy.
Steel reminded attendees about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a debris field consisting mostly of plastic that is larger than Texas and located between Hawaii and the West Coast.
"I think all of us here are old enough to remember a time when we didn't have plastic bags, and we never lost out on anything because of it," Paracuelles said.
She said that if people could just see firsthand the negative impact plastic bags have on the ocean, they would support the change. Once consumers stop using plastic bags, people will forget about them quickly enough, Paracuelles said.
Many people have already started saying "no" when asked at the store if they need a bag, she said. In the end, the elimination of plastic bags could benefit businesses, she said.
A third informational meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at the Lahaina Civic Center (the first one was in Kihei). Before the ordinance and the accompanying administrative rules can go into effect, the mayor must host a series of public hearings, probably this spring, Okuma said.
Michael Benny of TS Restaurants, which owns Kimo's Restaurant and the Hula Grill, wanted to know if the law covers takeout bags.
Yes, it does, Steel said.
Bakery representatives wondered if the partial ban applies to food packaging.
No, it does not, Steel said.
Retailers wondered how the county could help this hurt less.
Steel said that's why it's important now to make proactive efforts. She suggested getting customers in the practice now of bringing reusable bags along with them when shopping.
Jerry Masaki, general manager of Pukalani Superette, suggested a kickoff campaign prior to Jan. 11, along the lines of the Great American Smokeout.
Beginning in July, Maui County plans to launch an advertising campaign to inform residents of the change, with public service announcements, a Facebook page, posters, newspaper and radio spots and a Web page, Steel said.
"But the target right now is not the public, it's you, the business sector," Steel told the group.
A copy of the ordinance can be found online at the Recycle Maui County Web site at www.co.maui.hi.us/index.aspx?NID=742 as well as contact phone numbers and e-mail addresses for county officials. The plastic bag reduction ordinance is in the Maui County Code in Chapter 20.18.