For the past year, shoppers on O‘ahu have not received single-use plastic bags at the checkout line. But in many grocery stores, thicker plastic bags that are considered reusable are still allowed. That’s a problem for environmentalists who are calling on the city and county to propose a better ban.
Daniel and Karen Howell spend most days of the week picking up trash along the shores of O‘ahu’s windward beaches. The Hawai‘i Kai residents say it’s become part of their daily routine.
“We’ll go to the beach and I’ll take a swim,” said Daniel. “The time it takes me to dry off, I walk along the beach and I can usually pick up about a shopping bag of marine debris in a couple hundred feet.”
The retired couple is among several couple dozen people who showed up at Sandy Beach on a Saturday for the Surfrider Foundation’s annual beach cleanup. This year they’re haul included plate lunches, water bottles, beer cans, and plastic bags -- even though the island passed a ban on them more than a year ago.
“The heavier plastic ones actually last longer than the old ones,” said Daniel. “We find fewer of them hung up in the bushes, but they still end up in the water. They’re still a hazard.”
Unlike on the neighbor islands, Oahu’s new law wasn’t an outright ban. It still allows for exceptions, including the use of a thicker plastic bag.
“They just made them thicker, put a handle on it, and said they were reusable,” said Stuart Coleman, the Hawaiian Islands coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation. “It kind of defeats the whole purpose of the bill.”
Coleman thinks the ban is doing little to curb plastic debris. “We keep on telling the big stores and chains, do you want to see your logo on a plastic bag on a beach, floating in the water? Or do you want to see it on a reusable bag that people take to picnics and different events,” Coleman explained. “Then they start to get it, it’s just bad branding.”
Coleman and other environmental groups are pushing for a tougher ban, which would require reusable bags to be machine washable, eliminating plastic as an option. But some experts say requiring a bag fee could also prove effective.
“Some kind of fee component is generally where you see the biggest change in consumer behavior,” said Jennie Romer, an attorney who follows plastic bag policies in cities across the country. She says a fee, where the customer pays something like 10 cents a bag, is often more successful than an all-out ban.
“We’ve become so used to getting bags for free that people get disproportionately offended at the idea of having to pay for some,” she said. “Even with a five or 10 cent fee, you see that people take dramatically less bags.”
Stuart Coleman with the Surfrider Foundation said the group was in talks with the Honolulu City Council and had met with Ray Soon, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, about revisiting the bag ban.
A previous version of this story had incorrectly stated that the Surfrider Foundation had met with Mayor Kirk Caldwell directly.