Paper, plastic or none at all
by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
It's been awhile since "paper or plastic?" was a common question at the supermarket checkout. Now Hawai'i lawmakers are considering whether plastic should be an option at all.
The state Senate recently approved a bill that would prohibit businesses large and small from providing customers single-use plastic bags at the point of sale.
If approved by the House and signed by Gov. Linda Lingle, Hawai'i would become the first state to ban single-use plastic bags that largely end up in landfills and also find their way into the ocean where they can kill wildlife.
Similar bans have been debated in the Legislature in recent years and defeated. However, the present proposal has advanced further than before, and appears to be drawing momentum from bans passed in the last two years on Maui, Kaua'i, San Francisco, Los Angeles and China.
According to Maui County, which has studied the plastic bag issue for a ban it passed in 2008 that takes effect next year, Maui residents use an estimated 350 plastic carryout bags a year, or 50 million total. Use on O'ahu based on population could be 300 million bags or more annually.
The proposed state prohibition would apply to any business with annual sales over $300,000, which would include big retailers such as Walmart, Longs and grocery stores down to smaller businesses from convenience stores to fast-food restaurants.
Exemptions in the bill are made for fresh produce, raw meats, foods sold in bulk and prepared foods sold without packaging.
The effective date of a ban would be Jan. 1, 2012 to allow businesses time to adjust.
Two major business groups, the Hawaii Food Industry Association and Retail Merchants of Hawaii, oppose the bill.
Carol Pregill, Retail Merchants of Hawaii president, said the ban will encourage businesses to provide costlier paper bags, an expense that undoubtedly will be passed on to consumers.
Pregill said encouraging consumers to shop with reusable bags voluntarily is preferable to any single-use bag ban.
"It's not the item itself, it's the behavior that needs to be changed," she said.
EDUCATE, NOT BAN
The Hawaii Food Industry Association echoed that view in its written testimony on the bill. "We oppose this bill as not being the realistic solution to the problem, but rather being a solution to the symptom," said the group, which represents dozens of grocery stores.
HFIA also advocates better promotion of messages to prevent litter and reduce, reuse and recycle. The group even initiated a campaign encouraging people to knot bags to deter them from blowing away.
Besides the two groups, only two individuals submitted written testimony opposing the latest draft of the bill that was debated at a public hearing on Feb. 23.
In contrast, about 80 individuals or groups submitted testimony in support of the bill for reasons that most often included the negative impact of bags deposited in landfills, left to become unsightly litter, and threatening animals in the ocean.
"Plastic bags are a menace, from start to finish, especially in an island environment such as here in Hawai'i," Barbara George of Hale'iwa said in written testimony.
Two Senate committee reports state that plastic bags kill an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year globally, and that taxpayers spend up to 17 cents per bag subsidizing their recycling, collection and disposal.
PUBLIC OPINION MIXED
Outside a Safeway store on Beretania Street last week, a small sample of shoppers had split views on a ban. Helen Fong, a retiree in Makiki who uses both plastic bags and reusable bags for shopping, favors letting consumers decide whether they want to use plastic bags. "It's convenient," she said.
Thomas Galera, a retiree from Waipahu, also doesn't feel a ban is right. "I'm against it," he said.
But Janka Beno, a professional home and carpet cleaner from Waikīkī, supports a ban. "You should go green," she said.
Jody Ferchaud, a homemaker from Wai'alae Iki, said she's an example of why a ban is needed. She has two reusable shopping bags in the back of her Toyota Prius, but never remembers to use them. "Here I am guilty," she said, holding a plastic bag with groceries. "One of the hardest things to break is a habit."
The Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter said efforts such as a ban are needed to protect Hawai'i's valuable environment.
The group also noted that businesses already pass along plastic bag costs to consumers, which would be added savings for shoppers if all single-use bags, including paper bags, were banned.
BURNING BAGS DRAWS FIRE
Several testifiers pointed out that a couple of major retailers, Costco and Whole Foods Market, operate successfully without providing plastic bags to customers.
One argument mentioned by ban opponents is that many bags are burned at the city's H-Power garbage-to-energy plant, providing a cheap source of energy.
Supporters of a bag ban say there is plenty of other garbage to burn.
About one-third of O'ahu's trash is burned at H-Power, and officials say plastic bags make an excellent fuel. Still, around 380,000 tons of trash is buried each year in the Waimanalo Gulch landfill, including millions of plastic bags. Neighbor Islands rely on landfills for all their waste.
The Sierra Club said bags that get burned for energy still contribute to another environmental problem by producing greenhouse gasses affecting global climate change.
Another argument raised against a ban is that plastic bags are reused at least once by many consumers for purposes that include bagging rubbish and cleaning up after pets. If shopping bags aren't available for these purposes, people will need to purchase bags. Many bags also are recycled by consumers at stores.
FEE BILL COULD BE IN WORKS
Bill supporters say a ban will reduce plastic bag waste dramatically more.
One thing some on both sides of the issue are agreeing on is the viability of imposing a fee on consumers who accept plastic bags from businesses at the point of sale.
A bill that would impose such a fee advanced in the House, but stalled last month. There is some expectation among followers of the ban bill that if lawmaker support for a ban falters, then the fee bill could be revived.
The fee bill, House Bill 2125, would require businesses to charge customers 10 cents for each disposable checkout bag made from paper or plastic. The fee would be retained by businesses to educate consumers about recycling and reuse.
Among supporters of this idea are the Sierra Club and many individuals who favor a ban. The local food industry association also supports a fee, though it proposes charging 1 cent per bag mostly for use by county governments to promote reduction, reuse and recycling as well as waste-to-energy initiatives.
If a ban succeeds, some have questioned how it will be integrated with planned bans on Maui and Kaua'i.
Maui County in 2008 approved a ban on all plastic checkout bags that's scheduled to take effect in January 2011.
Kaua'i County last year passed a ban only for nonbiodegradable carryout bags starting in January 2011.
A plastic carryout bag ban was introduced in the Honolulu City Council in 2007 but didn't pass.
On the Big Island, a plastic carryout bag ban bill was narrowly defeated — by a vote of 5-4 — by the County Council last month. A ban approved by the council in 2008 was vetoed under then-Mayor Harry Kim.
The bill for a statewide ban has yet to be scheduled for a hearing in the House.