The push to add biodegradable plastic bags to Oahu's ban on plastic bags passed 8-1 Wednesday before the Honolulu City Council.
Council Chairman Ernie Martin voted no on Bill 38, but only because the bill would delay the current ban on plastic bags by six months to Jan. 1, 2016. Council members Ikaika Anderson and Ann Kobayashi votes yes with reservations.
Under a plastic bag ban passed by the council in April 2012, biodegradable plastic bags and recyclable paper bags could still be used by retailers when the law goes into effect on July 1, 2015.
Now Councilman Breene Harimoto wants plastic biodegradable bags added to the ban, claiming they remain intact for 90 days or more and their fragments can harm wildlife. Harimoto's effort is being supported by environmentalists, some of whom testified before the council.
Jennifer Milholen, of Styrophobia, said biodegradable plastic bags never really break down and even when they're no longer visible, microscopic bits are still present.
"They require a very large amount of heat and pressure in order to break down practically and we don't have those composting facilities currently on Hawaii," she said.
However food retailers, suppliers and distributors say if biodegradable plastic bags are good enough for other cities, they should be good enough for Oahu. Lauren Zirbel, of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, pointed to labeling issued by the Biodegradable Products Institute in New York, which certifies whether something can be composted. She urged the council to adopt the standard as part of the island's pending ban on plastic bags.
"We think that's a solution that everybody can support and get behind," said Zirbel. "It's a nationally recognized standard (and) it's used in very environmentally friendly cities like San Francisco and Seattle."
A merchant who produces plastic bags at his Aiea factory supports the BPI standard and claims adding biodegradable plastic bags to Oahu's ban could come at the expense of jobs.
"There's a lot of opportunity for growth in these bio-products if the council allows for it," said Adrian Hong, general manager of Island Plastic Bags Inc. "We would be hiring more folks (and) looking at buying new equipment."
Grocery stores say paper bags are more expensive than biodegradable plastic bags, and according to a study by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University reusable bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria.
Harimoto said he looks forward to further debate on the bill as it goes to the Committee on Public Works and Sustainability.
"I think this bill warrants much more discussion," he said.
The Big Island and Maui County already have complete bans on all types of plastic bags. The Maui ban has been in effect since January 11, 2011, while the Big Island ban has been in place since January 17, 2013.