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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 12, 2010

Single-use bag ban is a win-win option

By Stuart H. Coleman

Even the smallest acts can make a big difference. If you knew that changing one aspect of your behavior would help the environment, would you do it?

As part of the national Rise Above Plastics Campaign, I joined tens of thousands of volunteers last year and stopped using plastic bags and bottles.

Every person who stops consuming these wasteful products saves an estimated 400 single-use plastic bags and 160 plastic bottles from going into our landfills and trashing our environment. Collectively, we have already made a huge difference.

Americans go through 100 billion plastic bags each year, yet less than 5 percent is ever recycled. According to an article in The Advertiser on March 8, people on O'ahu use an estimated 300 million bags or more annually.

After their brief use, where do all the bags go? Most of these petroleum products end up clogging our landfills, which are already full, or being burned at the H-Power plant, which only leads to more air pollution and global warming.

Plastic bags are like toxic tumbleweeds, and our Island breezes blow them out to sea. Floating in the ocean, they look like jellyfish and are often eaten by sea turtles and other endangered creatures. Honu and albatross cannot digest the plastic, so it is often fatal.

Plastics of all kinds are the number one source of marine debris, and millions of seabirds, fish, marine mammals and sea turtles die each year due to ingestion and entanglement.

People's natural fear of change is usually the biggest obstacle to progress. Most people in Hawai'i now realize that wasting more than 350 million single-use plastic checkout bags each year is wasteful and bad for the environment. But many are still resistant to change their behavior and stop using them, even though the simple solution is just to bring your own reusable tote bags to the store.

By imposing a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper checkout bags, Senate Bill 2559 provides a needed incentive.

There has been a groundswell of support in Hawai'i and across the world for legislation to reduce the use of single-use bags. On Maui, Kauai and in other counties around the country, they have passed bans on plastic (and often paper) bags.

In Washington, D.C., plastic bag use dropped 60 percent in the first month after a 5-cent fee was imposed. In Ireland, they charged a fee on plastic bags and use dropped 90 percent in one year.

Remember, these small fees are not a tax because you don't have to pay them if you bring your own reusable bags. Unlike a ban, the fee preserves freedom of choice; those who want to keep using plastic bags for their trash or pet wastes can continue to do so for a small fee.

Yet there are those who keep saying that now is not the time to act and we should wait and see what other states do. But if not now, when? And if not us, who? An editorial in The Advertiser on March 9 stated, "Just as businesses are climbing out of a deep recession, [it] is not the moment to slap them with additional costs."

But Senate Bill 2559 will actually bring in needed money for the state and stores, who will share the fees. The bill will also save the counties hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs and the stores won't have to buy as many bags.

It's a win-win scenario for the state and the stores, the people and the environment. By charging a small fee, Senate Bill 2559 will encourage people to stop using single-use bags and bring their own reusable bags. But the bill comes at a small price: Are you willing to change your behavior and spare some change for the environment?