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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

State's problems go beyond plastic bags

By Lee Cataluna

Never mind about the plastic bag epidemic. Yes, plastic bags are killing dolphins and all that. They're bad, bad, very bad. But Hawai'i's economy is a confounded mess and if the Legislature doesn't come up with some solid fixes pretty soon, lots of Hawai'i people won't have money to buy groceries, so the bags will no longer be an issue.

The Legislature must look at issues broader than the economy during this session, of course. But still, what is not affected by the sour, dour economy right now? Isn't lawmakers' time better spent coming up with solutions other than fining evil users of plastic bags?

Senate Bill 2559 requires stores to distribute only reusable or biodegradable checkout bags. However, the prohibition on plastic bags would only affect businesses with annual gross sales of more than $300,000, and if you're purchasing stuff like those Foodland leaky raw chicken thighs or yogurt almonds sold from a bin, you can still use a plastic bag to get the food home safely.

There are provisions for fines in this bill, almost like getting caught selling Marlboros to minors. Give a plastic bag to a customer and get fined $200. Who's going to do the fining? The same health inspectors who are stretched to the limit hunting rats in Chinatown restaurants?

House Bill 2125 requires businesses to collect a fee for each plastic or paper disposable checkout bag, dry cleaning bag and plastic bag that covers the newspaper that lands on your front door in the rain. So a daily subscriber will pay an extra $36 a year? Please, we have enough trouble hanging onto readers already, and that's a lot of money for bags that are reused to pick up dog poop.

Before any environmentalists go mental and write hate mail on their cruelty-free paper with their soy-ink pens, let's circle back to the basic, undeniable truth that plastic bags are a problem. Everybody should have their eco-friendly tote bag with them when they go shopping; or their eight eco-friendly tote bags, because grocery packaging is so big these days that buying enough for two dinners fills up the whole trunk of your car but that's another issue that the lawmakers can fuss with later on.

But using the Legislature for social change is like using a sledgehammer to take out a splinter. Fines and bans and user fees are such blunt tools. What is really needed are solutions that make things easier, not take more money out of Mom's pocket when she's just struggling to get a gallon of milk, Huggies, some Cheetos and a dozen eggs to the car.