Big Island County Council to Vote on Plastic Bag Ban
Supporters say bags become litter, opponents say they’re reused.
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One person’s handy trash bag is another’s ecological nightmare.
The Hawaii County Council will vote Wednesday on a bill that would ban merchants from giving customers plastic bags. Businesses would have to put purchases into paper bags, or customers would have to bring their own.
But during recent public hearings there were more testimonials against Bill 17 than for it, said Council Chair Dominic Yagong.
Yagong said the main complaint against the bill is that there are some practical secondary uses for plastic bags. Many are recycled for things like church sales and even used to hold rubbish. If the bill passed, people said they were concerned that they would have to start buying plastic bags instead.
If the bill passes, Hawaii would be the third county to adopt a ban on merchants giving out plastic bags. In Maui and Kauai counties, similar laws went into effect in January 2011. It’s an ongoing conversation that’s happening in mainland cities, too. The Seattle City Council just passed a similar ordinance on December 19. Theirs includes a 5-cent charge for paper bags.
The state Legislature also took up a bill last session that proposed charging a statewide 10-cent per plastic bag fee. The fee would have brought in an estimated $2.4 million a year to the state. But the bill ultimately died.
Hawaii Council member Pete Hoffmann, who represents the Kohala District, is Bill 17’s primary sponsor. Hoffmann, a member of the Environmental Management Committee, initiated two similar bills in 2008 and 2010. The Council actually passed the first, Bill 326, in 2008. But Acting Mayor Dixie Kaetsu vetoed it.
A second attempt in 2010 didn’t even pass the Council.
A major change between the two previous bills and this year’s bill includes removal of a section that references police officers giving summons or citations to businesses that break the law. It also removes fines for violators.
This draft also adds “cloth or paper” bags as preferable options to plastic bags. The previous version did not promote particular types of reusable bags.
The Council held six public hearings about the current bill at various locations around the Big Island, where people could either testify in person or by letter.
Everyone from local business owners to junior high school students have lined up for and against the bill. There were literally hundreds of written letters submitted as testimony. Many of the students’ letters included statistics and information they researched about the usefulness and hazards of plastic bags. The letters looked like a class project, but they showed that the students were just as divided on the issue as the adults.
Opposing the measure is Steven Hironaka, the general manager of Nihon Restaurant in Hilo. He said the restaurant already uses biodegradable plastic bags, but this bill would ban those, too.
“Council said biodegradable bags have not been proven,” Hironaka said. “We do some takeouts. For things like miso soup, it’s easier to carry in a plastic bag. Paper bags leak.”
Hironaka said that he and his wife use cloth bags when they go shopping. But when they forget them or leave them in the car, they get plastic bags like everyone else. He said they reuse the bags for trash and to carry things around.
But those for the bill said they are concerned that the bags harm the environment. For one, they say the bags aren’t biodegradable. They blow around easily and become litter, while marine animals sometimes mistake the bags for food.
“I’m for a ban on plastic,” said Suzanne Wang who lives in Hilo. “It would be better for the environment.”
Wang said she moved to the Big Island two years ago from San Francisco — where plastic bags have been banned since 2007. She said she did not testify on the bill, but if it passes, she would just get more fabric bags.
Yagong said five of the nine Council members would need to vote in favor of the bill in order for it to pass. It would then go to Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi to sign into law.
If Bill 17 passes, the new law would go into effect within a year.
“If the mayor vetoes, it goes back to council for a veto override vote,” Yagong said. At that point, six of the Council would need to vote in favor of the bill to override the mayor’s veto, he said.
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