KAPOLEI — Honolulu could soon become the fourth and final county in Hawaii to implement a ban on single-use plastic checkout bags.
With proposed statewide legislation to create a fee on both paper and plastic bags unlikely to pass at the Hawaii Legislature, the Honolulu City Council took matters into its own hands and passed a ban by a 7-1 vote Wednesday at its meeting in Kapolei.
If signed by Mayor Peter Carlisle, the ban would take effect in July 2015, giving retailers more than three years to burn through their existing inventories and prepare for the increased reliance on paper bags and reusable bags. The legislation was introduced and championed by council Chair Ernie Martin.
“I always believed that as long as people litter their plastic bags, something needs to be done. Right now, properly discarded plastic bags are incinerated for energy at H-Power,” Carlisle said via email. “I want to acknowledge the City Council for wrestling with this issue and attempting to resolve the concerns of retailers, consumers and all Oahu citizens who care for the environment.”
Carlisle said he’d review the bill and accept public input before making a decision on whether to sign it.
The vote pleased environmentalists — including leaders from both the Sierra Club and Surfrider — and drew a loud ovation from those assembled at Kapolei Hale. But during testimony, representatives of some of the state’s largest grocery companies warned that a ban on plastic bags would serve as a hidden tax because they’d have to raise prices to cover increased costs from using bulkier paper bags.
The retailers had supported the more comprehensive statewide proposal, which would have charged a fee on both paper and plastic. They said that program would go further to change behavior and increase use of reusable bags.
The council briefly considered a different version of the bill that would have both banned plastic bags and also charged a five-cent fee for paper bags. But Nestor Garcia basically withdrew his own floor draft, saying he received a legal anslysis from corporation counsel late Tuesday raising serious questions about the legality of a fee.
The legal opinion has not been made public yet — Civil Beat has requested it from Martin’s staff — but it’s likely that the matter was related to the Hawaii law that 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.
Martin said the legal question was not the rationale for his support for a ban rather than a fee. Hawaii voters agree with him — The Civil Beat Poll taken last week found that registered voters support a ban over a fee, though nearly half of voters want the government to stay out of the checkout bag issue altogether. Martin noted that his bill would also ban nonbiodegradable, nonrecyclable paper bags and pointed to the definition section.
Garcia was the lone member to vote against the final version of the bill. He said he wanted to send it back to the committee to spend more time deliberating on the fee component. Stanley Chang was absent Wednesday and excused from the vote. The other seven members — enough to override a potential veto — all voted in support.
Tulsi Gabbard, who co-signed on the original legislation with Martin, said the council was showing “bold leadership” while the Legislature — including her senator father — were unable to get the job done. She called Martin’s amendment “the best compromise and the best bill we can have at this point going forward.”
Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson said he was looking forward to having a cleaner environment.
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