A panel of Honolulu City Council members debated a bill Wednesday to make Honolulu’s plastic bag regulations more stringent, but decided to delay action until stakeholders can come up with a better method to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags when grocery shopping.

The city approved a law four years ago to prevent grocery stores from giving out thin disposable plastic bags. The idea was to cut down on litter and carbon emissions associated with making the bags.

But when the law went into effect last year, some stores decided to give out thicker plastic bags instead of getting rid of them altogether, to the frustration of environmentalists.

Bill 59, introduced by Councilman Brandon Elefante, seeks to increase the minimum thickness for the bags and ban stores from giving out compostable plastic bags. The city doesn’t have a facility to compost those bags, which are instead burned at a waste-to-energy plant.

The discussion Wednesday largely focused on the best method for encouraging shoppers to bring their own bags.

Lauren Zirbel from the Hawaii Food Industry Association opposes Bill 59, but both she and Stuart Coleman from the Surfrider Foundation said they’d support requiring retailers to charge a fee for both paper and plastic bags to discourage shoppers from taking bags.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga listens to testimony during hearing on Hoopili development. 5 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum
Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga listens to testimony during a hearing at the City Council last year. cory Lum/Civil Beat

The rare note of agreement between usually opposing sides was encouraging to Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who leads the committee that deals with sustainability. She decided to defer the bill until industry and environmental activists propose an amendment that incorporates a fee.

“If both the plastic bag ban advocates and the industry agree that a fee is the preferred route, I’d like to give them an opportunity to hammer out something that could be really a lot more effective,” she said.

She also asked the city to give her a list of the types of trash cans that prevent bags from being blown out of them, and said the council should consider incentives, like bag credits, to encourage consumers to bring their own bags.

Both Zirbel and Coleman said research shows that fees are the most effective way to discourage plastic bag use.

Zirbel noted that California approved a fee for plastic bags last year, and contended that Honolulu’s current law drives up the cost of food because the thicker plastic bags are more expensive than the thin bags. She suggested the fee could go to retailers, instead of the county.

“If we could do a fee, all the studies show that this is by far the most successful way,” Coleman said. “That would truly be a win-win for the stores, the environmental groups, and the customers.”

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