A bill that would require stores to charge 10 cents for bags, while allowing businesses to continue offering thick plastic bags, passed out of a Honolulu City Council committee Wednesday.

The original version of Bill 59, proposed by Councilman Brandon Elefante, aimed to make Honolulu’s current plastic bag ban more stringent.

Five years ago, the council passed a law banning plastic bags under 2.25 millimeters from certain uses at stores. The law went into effect last year, but many stores started giving out thicker plastic bags rather than getting rid of the bags altogether as the bill had intended.

Dueling amendments to the bill were proposed. Elefante’s amendments would have added language requiring stores to phase out the thicker bags — ultimately eliminating the use of all plastic bags at checkout counters by 2020.

But the committee instead approved an amendment by Carol Fukunaga, chairwoman of the panel, that allowed the continued use of the thicker bags.

Aaron Char leads supporters march along Bishop Street towards Pali Longs Drugs to encourage the City to close the loophole in the plastic bag ban and the State to pass a ban on syrofoam food containers. 10 feb 2017
In February, marchers encouraged the city to close the loophole in the plastic bag ban and the state to pass a ban on styrofoam food containers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill goes to the full council meeting for consideration.

Fukunaga did not specify whether or not the bill will be on the agenda for the full council meeting next week.

In support of a total ban, Elefante cited environmental concerns such as the growing mass of trash in the ocean referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“Our neighbor island counties have passed bills and ordinances that actually go a little further than Honolulu,” Elefante said. “It’s actually a bit embarrassing from our standpoint that we’re not up to speed with our neighbor island counties.”

Fukunaga said both industry representatives and environmentalists agree on charging a fee, and that the two groups must come to an consensus before any further language can be added to the bill.

Her version was supported by grocery industry representatives including Lauren Zirbel, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association.

Council members Ann Kobayashi and Trevor Ozawa supported Fukunaga’s proposal, while Councilman Joey Manahan supported Elefante’s.

Ozawa, who represents districts from Hawaii Kai to Ala Moana, said there isn’t enough evidence supporting the argument that a plastic bag ban will benefit the environment.

“I’ve heard emotional testimony,” he said. “But as an attorney I’m looking for factual evidence.”

Councilman Brandon Elefante listens to Councilman Trevor Ozawa explain his opposition to Bill 59. Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

He also cited concerns about reusable bags being worse for the environment than plastic bags and said many of his constituents did not support the ban.

Environmentalists who once supported the bill now say that like the original ban on plastic bags, the new bill doesn’t go far enough.

“There’s been a preponderance of evidence about plastic pollution in the ocean and it’s been presented before the city council numerous times,” said Stuart Coleman, who is the Hawaii coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation.

Suzanne Frazer and Dean Otsuki of the nonprofit Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii, testified that turtles, birds and other sea life ingest plastic bags both thick and thin, she said.

“We’ve picked up an enormous amount of the new plastic bags,” she said.

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