A much-debated ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags was passed Wednesday by the Honolulu City Council, but if signed into law by Mayor Peter Carlisle, the ban would not take effect until July 1, 2015. The vote was 7-1, with Councilman Nestor Garcia the sole vote against the measure.
"This is a bold action and I think here in the state of Hawaii we have always been bold, especially when it comes to protecting our environment," said Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard, who together with Council chairman Ernie Martin sponsored the initiative.
Mayor Carlisle said he would review the ban and ask for public comment before deciding whether to sign the bill, or allow it to become law without his approval.
"I always believed that as long as people litter their plastic bags, something needs to be done," said Carlisle. "Right now, properly discarded plastic bags are incinerated for energy at H-Power. I want to acknowledge the City Council for wrestling with this issue and attempting to resolve the concerns of retailers, consumers and all Oahu citizens who care for the environment."
The proposed ban does not include a fee on consumers who choose to use biodegradable plastic bags. Councilman Garcia lobbied for a version of the bill that would have charged consumers five cents for each biodegradable bag, with three cents going toward to a single-use checkout bag fee program to support recycling initiatives.
However, some members of the Council and city attorneys believe a fee on any type of plastic bag may have been ruled a tax if challenged in court. Under state law, counties have the power to levy fees only if it's to implement an official service.
"It probably will face legal challenge," said Martin. "I don't feel comfortable with imposing any kind of additional costs on our consumers on this particular issue."
The bill now before the mayor includes exemptions on ten types of non-biodegradable plastic bags; for instance, bags used to hold vegetables and those used to collect animal waste.
Robert Harris, director of Sierra Club Hawaii, said his organization would work to establish a fee on recyclable paper bags if the ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags becomes law.
"Really move towards a sustainable option," said Harris, "which is to use reusable bags."
Under parameters of the bill, business caught using non-biodegradable plastic bags would face fines of $100 to $1,000 per day. Violations would be reported to the city's Department of Environmental Services.
Both Maui and Kauai counties already have plastic bag bans in place. Hawaii County's ban is scheduled to take effect January 17 of next year. Some retailers on Maui and Kauai offer their customers recyclable paper bags for about five cents each.
Bob Guitierrez, the government affairs director for Times and Big Save supermarkets, told Honolulu City council members that providing paper bags on Maui and Kauai has cost each store an average of $30,000 per year. So far, the supermarkets have absorbed most of the cost, but that is likely to change.
"At some point or another, the consumer is impacted by that, just by the cost of doing business," said Guitierrez.