This time it’s for real. A real plastic checkout bag ban starts this week in stores across Oahu when Bill 59 goes into effect on New Year’s Day.

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However, some environmental groups already signaled mission accomplished on plastic bags years ago. Since 2012 when Honolulu County’s Bill 10 passed, these groups have promoted the idea that “Hawaii is the first state to have a plastic bag ban county by county,” as if repeating this misinformation makes it true.

I never got behind this idea because it’s misleading. All that Hawaii had county by county were ordinances related to plastic bags, but these didn’t add up to a statewide plastic bag ban.

This was because on Oahu, the ban was really a switch — from thin to thicker plastic bags. The thin bags were regarded as “single-use” and the thicker bags were promoted as “reusable” as if to distinguish one from the other.

The truth is both are really just plastic bags that are neither “single-use” nor “reusable.” Both thin and thick can be used more than once and are therefore not single-use. But they are still disposable plastic bags and that’s how the public used them. They are not real reusable bags that are made for multiple re-use over a period of years.

Workers pull plastic off of conveyor belt at RRR Recycling Services Hawaii.

Workers pull plastic off a conveyor belt at RRR Recycling Services Hawaii in 2017. A new Honolulu law banning plastic checkout bags goes into effect Wednesday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In July 2015, after Bill 10 went into effect and stores switched to thick plastic bags, Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii surveyed litter at Ala Moana Regional Park to see how many bags were being discarded. We found the new thick plastic bags left behind all over the park. People had used them for four days or less. That hardly made them “reusable” bags.

Later, environmental groups that supported Bill 10 pushed for a fee on plastic bags rather than a ban. They believed that a 15 cent fee would reduce plastic bags. While the committee hearings were still going on, stores such as Safeway, which had previously offered just paper bags, brought in thick plastic bags in anticipation of Bill 59 passing with a fee on bags.

B.E.A.C.H. found there was a 49% increase in thick plastic bags in surveys from 2015 to 2018 at Ala Moana Regional Park. We also found in comparing survey data from 2017 and 2018 that there was a 42% decrease in paper bags. The fee on bags had resulted in more plastic and less paper bags in the environment.

Both the fee and the switch to thick plastic bags had made no difference to reducing plastic bag pollution on Oahu.

Halfway To A Statewide Ban

The only way to really reduce plastic bags is to ban them. B.E.A.C.H. was the only environmental organization that right from the start opposed the fee and advocated for a ban on thick plastic checkout bags. No other group believed that a ban was possible as there weren’t enough votes.

That was until B.E.A.C.H. collected over 1,400 pieces of written testimony in support of a ban at 33 outreach events across the island from October 2016 to July 2017. B.E.A.C.H. got school students and the community behind a ban. Then other environmental groups began to support a ban also and Bill 59 passed 9-0 after three final hearings with both a fee and a ban.

The only way to really reduce plastic bags is to ban them.

With the ban on thick plastic bags starting this week on Oahu, Hawaii will be a step closer to a statewide ban on all plastic checkout bags county by county. Supermarket bags account for 38% of plastic checkout bags found at Ala Moana Regional Park (B.E.A.C.H. surveys 2015 and 2017). The other 62% of plastic bags was for takeout food.

With a further ban on plastic checkout bags taking place in a year’s time when Bill 40 takes effect, we’ll be halfway there towards a statewide plastic bag ban county by county as Honolulu County will have caught up to Kauai.

That will leave Maui and Hawaii counties as the other half of the state still needing to close loopholes allowing for thick plastic bags. They have administrative rules allowing plastic bags that are a minimum of 3 mils thick. In reality supermarkets in those counties don’t provide thick plastic bags, but some other stores do.

Across the U.S. there are counties and states that have switched from thin to thicker plastic bags and claimed that they have a plastic bag “ban.” But let’s get real. Switching from thin to thick plastic is like me saying I’m going gluten free now and I’m going to change from thin to thicker wheat noodles. It’s not going gluten free at all. Neither are these “bans” a ban when it’s just changing from thin to thicker plastic bags under the pretense that thicker means reusable.

Oahu has tried the switch to thicker bags and tried the fee – both have failed to make a difference. Now due to Bills 59 and 40 all plastic checkout bags in Honolulu County are going to be banned. That’s the only real way to end the threat of plastic bags to Hawaii’s endangered and threatened marine animals.

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About the Author

  • Suzanne Frazer
    Suzanne Frazer is the co-founder and president of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii, an award-winning nonprofit that brings awareness and solutions to plastic marine debris through environmental education in schools and the community, marine debris removal and research, and plastic reduction/litter prevention campaigns.