A bill to make Honolulu’s plastic bag ban more stringent has been languishing at the City Council despite concerns that the existing law isn’t doing enough to protect Oahu’s environment.

Councilman Brandon Elefante of Aiea introduced Bill 59 in October to close a loophole in the law that allows companies like ABC Stores and Longs Drugs to continue putting customers’ purchases in plastic bags. Even though dozens of people submitted testimony supporting the proposal, it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability, chaired by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga. She said she hasn’t scheduled the measure because she hadn’t heard much about it and has been focusing on infrastructure issues related to redevelopment around planned rail stations.

Dont forget your plastic bags sign Don Quixote. 11 jan 2017
A sign at the Don Quijote store urges customers to bring their own bags. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We had not really received that much interest in Bill 59 at this point so we are kind of charging ahead on all of the sewer, drainage and flooding issues,” Fukunaga said.

There’s considerable debate surrounding the plastic bag law.

Environmentalists like Stuart Coleman of the Surfrider Foundation say even Elefante’s bill doesn’t do enough to reduce pollution and help save marine mammals. But some businesses, including ABC Stores, say that the current law is sufficient.

Muddying the issue, the city doesn’t have any data about whether the current ban has made an impact on Oahu’s litter or plastic bag waste, part of its stated purpose, said Lori Kahikina from the city Department of Environmental Services.

Tell the Council What You Think

Nationally, the plastics industry has spent millions of dollars to combat plastic bag bans. Michigan recently passed a ban on bans that essentially prevents counties from imposing their own plastic bag regulations. Arizona, Idaho and Missouri have taken similar plastic-friendly steps.

In contrast, Californians approved a law last year that not only bans plastic bags, but requires a minimum 10-cent per-bag fee on customers when stores provide either paper bags or reusable bags. That’s in line with an analysis of New York City’s bag charge that found fees are one of the most effective ways to encourage consumers to bring their own bags.

A state Department of Transportation study released in October found that prohibiting all stores except restaurants from giving out plastic bags would decrease the amount of trash going into waterways in Honolulu by 10 percent.

This Instagram post reflects some of the frustration that environmentalists feel about Honolulu’s plastic bag ban. Screenshot

A spokeswoman for the department said the report was prepared to comply with federal guidelines and that the agency isn’t advocating for strengthening the city’s plastic bag ban. There haven’t been any bills introduced on the subject in the Legislature this session.

Oahu’s current ban mainly applies to stores that sell groceries because of numerous exemptions, including medications, pesticides, frozen food, flowers and laundry.

Switching To Thicker Bags

When Honolulu passed a bill banning thin plastic bags at grocery stores in 2012, national news outlets heralded Hawaii as the first state to have a de facto plastic bag ban at grocery checkouts. Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties had already passed more stringent regulations.

But last summer, when the Oahu measure went into effect, many who supported the bill were confused and frustrated because the law allows stores to give out thicker plastic bags in checkout lines.

A city survey of 5,000 stores found that while most claim they are exempt from the ban or don’t give out plastic bags, more than 1,000 stores said they provide thicker plastic bags, reusable bags or a combination of paper and plastic bags.

The Surfrider Foundation’s Coleman said he never anticipated that some businesses would simply switch to thicker plastic bags.

Stuart Coleman 

“We didn’t think it would be a problem,” Coleman said. “Nobody was really making bags that thick at grocery stores.”

Elefante’s amendment would eliminate the option for stores to give out so-called compostable bags and establish a higher threshold for the thickness of plastic bags that are banned.

“There are still ways that we can make this a little more stringent in terms of tightening up the law,” Elefante said.

Honolulu doesn’t have a composting or recycling facility for plastic bags, so they are incinerated at the city’s waste-to-energy facility. A report by plastic bag legal experts Jennie Romer and Leslie Mintz Tamminen argues, “Compostable bags are only better for the environment when they are actually composted in an industrial composting facility.”

As Kahikina put it, “Being compostable — it really doesn’t help, it just goes in the gray bins.”

Kahikina says the city supports Elefante’s effort to change the law, but notes the need to “converse with the retailers because it has a major impact on them.”

Elefante says his bill is modeled after measures already in place in Maui and Hawaii counties. Right now, Honolulu’s thickness threshold for plastic bags is 2.25 mils — one mil is one-thousandth of an inch — while the standard on Maui and the Big Island is 3 mils.

A fiscal year 2014 report by Maui County’s Department of Environmental Management on the impact of the ban concluded, “A visual inspection of plastic bag landfill litter or lack thereof, reveals that this law, as a litter prevention tool, works. A visual inspection of roadside litter and trees also indicated the success of this law.”

Coleman supports Elefante’s bill and is frustrated that it hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing. But he thinks the measure should go further, with a minimum thickness level of 4 mils that would discourage businesses from using plastic at all.

Kauai County has the strictest bag ban of all the counties, with a minimum thickness of 2.25 millimeters — that’s slightly over 88 mils.

Kauai Acting County Engineer Lyle Tabata said in an email that since the ordinance went into effect on that island, the number of plastic bags in the waste stream has dropped and pollution has decreased.

Plastic bags await burning at the H-POWER plant, a waste-to-energy facility in Honolulu, in 2014. Civil Beat

“One of the main goals of the legislation was to reduce litter and we have observed a noticeable reduction of bags in neighborhoods, highways, streams, and beaches since the law went into effect,” Tabata wrote.

Elefante’s proposal is facing pushback from the business community. Neil Ishida of ABC Stores stated in written testimony that the current ban is adequate and changing it would increase the already high cost of doing business in Hawaii.

The Retail Merchants of Hawaii also opposes the bill.

“We should allow the new ordinance to have a chance,” wrote Tina Yamaki, the president of the organization, contending that Elefante’s proposal would impose an “undue burden” on businesses.

Why Not A Fee?

Lauren Zirbel from the Hawaii Food Industry Association also doesn’t like Elefante’s bill, and says that changing the law would be unfair to business owners who spent years preparing for the current law.

She has a different idea for the best way to reduce plastic bag waste. Zirbel wants Hawaii to adopt the same type of bag ban that’s in place in California, where stores are required to charge customers a fee for each single-use bag they provide to discourage their use.

“It’s actually a win-win, once people kind of get the message to bring their own bag it brings down costs for everyone,” said Zirbel, noting that paper bags come with their own environmental costs. “We would love to see someone push that kind of plastic bag fee, and it would be the only real solution to the environmental problem.”

Paper bags are becoming more common now that Honolulu has banned thin plastic bags. Safeway currently provides them for free to customers who don’t bring their own bags. Flickr via Creative Commons

A 2007 study by an Australian environmental group found that paper bags require more energy to create and transport than plastic bags. Reusable bags that are made from cotton are also problematic because growing cotton often involves lots of water and pesticides.

An analysis by the news organization Grist of the environmental costs of different bags concluded, “The ideal city bag policy would probably involve charging for paper and plastic single-use bags, as New York City has decided to do, while giving out reusable recycled-plastic bags to those who need them, especially to low-income communities and seniors.”

Romer and Tamminen agree, arguing that “allowing these (plastic) bags to be available for a small charge at checkout is a more sophisticated option for actually changing consumer behavior.”

ABC Stores still gives out plastic bags to customers who buy bulky items. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Nationally, many municipalities, including Chicago, have imposed fees on plastic bags.

Such policies have been criticized for increasing the cost of buying groceries. That argument might resonate in Hawaii, where food is already expensive and subject to the general excise tax.

But plastic bag ban proponents argue that consumers are already paying for single-use bags because businesses buy them and pass on the cost.

In 2013, Coleman advocated at the Hawaii Legislature for a bill to impose a statewide fee for single-use plastic bags, but it didn’t pass. Coleman agrees with Zirbel that a fee would be helpful, but says Elefante’s bill should be heard right away instead of waiting for the state to act.

“We have got to fix what’s broken first,” he said.

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