A ban on plastic bags. A fee on plastic bags paid by businesses. A ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper bags paid by customers. Or none of the above.

It’s rare that a bill just days from a final vote by the Honolulu City Council would have so many potential outcomes. Usually, members and stakeholders have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen by this stage of the game. It’s already passed two votes by the full body, had a hearing to take the pulse of the public and twice been referred to committee for refinement.

The debate has flown all but under the radar over the last two months, as environmentalists’ and retailers’ attention has been seemingly monopolized by a similar statewide proposal still technically alive across the street at the Hawaii Legislature.

But state lawmakers’ efforts on the issue are floundering and time is running out in the 2012 session. Meanwhile, the council is on the verge of a single-use checkout bag ban, a fee or some combination of the two that would affect Oahu’s 1 million residents and millions of annual visitors.

Members have floated three different sets of amendments that could be considered Wednesday in Kapolei, and there are three distinct visions of the legislation that could conceivably become law within a week. Let’s go through them, one by one.

The Existing Bill (Fee)

When the bill was in committee earlier this month, Public Works and Sustainability Chair Stanley Chang amended what had been a straight-up ban on plastic bags into a multi-step approach featuring a fee.

Chang’s version — the one that the council will take up Wednesday — would implement a three-cent fee per plastic bag from sometime in 2013 to sometime in 2014, increase the fee to 5 cents after that, and then remove the fee and implement a ban at some undetermined point in the future. This is the baseline, but at the very least it would need to be amended to fill in some blank spaces where dates would go.

The idea of a fee raised concerns about legality, as Hawaii law does not give the counties the power to tax at will. Section 46-1.5 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes lets the counties charge fees, but only to cover the cost of implementing an “official service” and not to generate general revenue.

Honolulu Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger said even a three-cent fee would create a “windfall” that his department doesn’t need to implement the program.

Retailers and environmentalists alike also complained that the fee should be assessed directly to the customers because that would change behavior more effectively. Retailers also want to keep a slice of the revenue to cover the additional cost they have to bear to implement the program.

Read the current draft here and Civil Beat’s coverage of its passage here: Doubting State, Honolulu Moves To Add Bag Fee.

The Chair’s Choice (Ban)

Before the Public Works and Sustainability Committee got its hands on the bill, it had been a ban proposed by council Chair Ernie Martin in February.

Martin’s vision was and remains somewhat uncomplicated: a total elimination of plastic checkout bags. The only thing that’s changed is the timing. Martin originally suggested the ban take effect July 1, 2013, but two different versions he’s floated for consideration Wednesday would give stores until July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015, respectively, to burn through their existing stocks of plastic bags and prepare for life under the ban.

Martin’s ban would mirror legislation on each of the neighbor islands, which have all passed laws banning single-use plastic checkout bags. But, like those proposals and even Chang’s proposed fee, Martin’s ban has been criticized by retailers because it does not address the environmental and economical scourge of single-use paper bags.

Though they’re more biodegradable than plastic and not produced from petroleum, paper bags require the felling of millions of trees and are water- and energy-intensive to produce. And because they’re bulkier and heavier, they cost far more to ship and stock. Retailers claim neighbor island fees add thousands in operating costs.

Read Martin’s proposed versions here:

The Best of Both Worlds?

If both the plastic bag fee and plastic bag ban fall short, a third option might have a little something for everybody.

Nestor Garcia has floated an aggressive, complicated amendment that seeks to address a number of concerns.

His version would ban plastic checkout bags starting July 1, 2013; charge customers (as opposed to stores) a five-cent fee for single-use paper checkout bags; give 40 percent of the revenue back to the retailers; and spend the rest to support recycling and educate the public about the benefits of reusable bags.

That final component could include giving stores educational materials to distribute to their customers, and could be costly enough to expend any revenue from the fee and avoid the issue of the city’s inability to raise taxes that don’t directly cover program implementation.

“The Council finds that to preserve the health, safety, welfare, and scenic and natural beauty of the City and County of Honolulu, steps must be taken now to discourage the distribution of both paper and plastic bags at checkout,” Garcia wrote in the “findings” section of his draft. “The Council further finds that the City, businesses, and customers must work together to decrease the number of bags going into our waste stream.”

Garcia’s version most closely parallels the bills that have been under consideration the last two years at the Hawaii Legislature in that it would charge a fee for the use of both plastic and paper. The council version goes further than the state has proposed in that it would ban plastic outright as well.

The Legislature’s efforts have drawn support from both retailers and environmentalists. Will this?

Read Garcia’s proposed version here.

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