Citing the significant amount of plastic found in oceans, lawmakers advanced a bill that would ban the sale of plastic water bottles as early as 2024.

Hawaii’s latest iteration of a plastic ban may arrive next year, this time restricting the use of plastic water bottles in an effort to reckon with the costs of pollution. 

On Tuesday, state lawmakers advanced a bill that would prevent plastic water bottles holding less than 2 liters from being sold within the state, adding them to a roster of other materials like plastic utensils and plastic bags that counties have banned in recent years. 

“We have to end our overreliance on plastic,” said Rep. Sean Quinlan, who authored the bill.

It’s an approach that acknowledges the pitfalls of recycling, which in recent years has emerged as a flawed if well-meaning way to handle waste. 

A turtle rests on Kahuku beach on Oahu’s north shore. Microplastics litter the sand. (Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019)

If passed, the bill would ban the sale of plastic water bottles smaller than 2 liters starting Jan. 1, leaving an exception for bottled water used in emergency and public health situations.

China made headlines in 2019 when its National Sword policy halted the flow of recyclable waste to its borders, forcing global recycling markets to find somewhere else to put their waste. 

Now, rather than only focusing on ways to improve the recycling process, some lawmakers think it would be better to simply use less plastic in the first place. 

It gets to the heart of “throwaway culture,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen, a co-sponsor of the bill and chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, the bill’s first stop. 

“I think there’s growing awareness we can’t just keep doing this and we have to think of things differently,” she said in an interview after the hearing.

Testimony included both supporters and opponents. 

“We have to end our overreliance on plastic.” — Rep. Sean Quinlan

The International Association of Bottled Water was one of several organizations opposed, arguing that the plastic used in recyclable water bottles, polyethylene terephthalate, results in less greenhouse gas emissions than aluminum and glass throughout their life cycles.

But unlike aluminum and glass, said Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick — another co-sponsor — plastic can only be recycled a few times. She even keeps a drab, gray porous brick in one of her office’s drawers, as an example of what happens to plastic’s structural integrity after a couple rounds of being recycled.

“It’s not homogenous, it’s not really usable for anything, it flakes off all the time. It’s not as recyclable as we think it is,” she said.

Countywide plastic bag bans came one at a time, and amendments were sometimes added on years later.

Maui and Kauai were the first to ban plastic bags from store checkouts, effective 2011, with the Big Island easing from a fee to a ban between 2013 and 2014, and Honolulu joining in 2015. Ambiguity over what qualifies as a “single-use” plastic bag versus a “reusable” one complicated Honolulu’s ban though, leading to amendments.

In the past five years, each county has also implemented its own version of a ban on plastic food ware.

Rep. Gene Ward was the only committee member to vote against the bill, later saying in an interview that he was worried the one year timeline might be too quick for businesses to adjust their supply chains. 

These bans target everyday items, a point he emphasized by saying that lots of people in the Capitol drink beverages out of plastic bottles.

Before it was amended, the bill targeted all bottles containing non-medical liquids for oral consumption. Directing his questions to a representative from the American Beverage Association who opposed the bill, Ward asked, “So you still don’t know what we’ll drink Coke out of?”

Ward said he was more amenable to an effective date three years out. “It took about that long to get rid of all the forks and spoons that are made out of plastic,” he said.

Quinlan said he’s willing to talk about pushing the bill’s effective date to accommodate this.

Quinlan introduced a similar bill last year, which never made it past its first committee referral. But regardless of whether this current bill passes, Quinlan said he thinks it’s important that a conversation about plastic use happens on the statewide level.

Now that it’s cleared its first committee, the bill will be considered by members of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, who will decide whether to advance it further to the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. If it passes those committees, then the entire House will vote on whether to advance the bill to the Senate.

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