In an effort to cut down on a type of litter seen as a significant threat to the environment, Hawaiians are giving plastic bags the boot.
Peter Carlisle, mayor of the city and county of Honolulu, recently signed legislation banning retailers from offering plastic bags in the checkout aisle, joining the state's other three counties that have recently passed similar laws. That makes Hawaii the first state with such regulations statewide.
“[The bill] will allow us to do reduction, recycling and reuse,” Carlisle told reporters on May 10 after signing the legislation. “This is really getting people to change their behaviors.”
Environmental groups for several years have been lobbying state and local governments to enact policies discouraging the use of plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to biodegrade and often end up clogging waterways, sitting in landfills or drifting across pavement as what some describe as “urban tumbleweed.”
No state legislature has passed a plastic bag law, but several in recent years have debated them. Ten states between 2009 and 2011 proposed taxes, fees or bans on plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And this year, bills were proposed in Washington and Massachusetts.
For enemies of plastic bags, the greatest victories have come locally, where dozens of cities and counties have limited use of plastic, and in some cases, paper bags, too. For instance, San Francisco, which in 2007 became the first U.S. city to regulate plastic bags, now charges a 10-cent tax on paper bags.
“Great things are happening at the local level and we're confident that California can translate that into statewide action,” says Sue Vang, a policy associate for the nonprofit Californians Against Waste.
Local bans in California will apply to 25 percent of the state's population by the end of the year, the group estimates.
In 2009, Washington, DC, passed a 5-cent tax on disposable paper and plastic carryout bags following a study estimating that plastic bags made up 20 percent of litter in the Anacostia River and more than 40 percent of trash in nearby rivers and streams. Under the law, businesses keep 1 cent of the tax, and the remainder goes to fund river cleanup efforts.
The river's plastic bag waste has since dropped by 75 percent, district authorities told The Washington Post earlier this month. And plastic and paper bag use had dropped from 22.5 million to 3.2 million to one year after the law went into effect.
Most opposition to bag bans and taxes comes from the plastics and chemicals industry, whose representatives have argued that the laws would burden consumers, manufacturers and recyclers.
"There's no need to burden consumers with a punitive new tax in this difficult economy. Recycling is a solution that's already working,” Shari Jackson, of the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement last year after Maryland's Montgomery County passed a bag tax.
Some cities and grocery stores collect plastic bags for recycling, but few bags overall end up being recycled, partly because it's costly to do so. Just 12 percent of bags, plastics and wraps was recycled in 2010, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Honolulu's bag ban won't go into effect until July 1, 2015, which Mayor Carlyle says will give stores ample time to use up their inventory and prepare customers for the shift.
Some environmental groups say the law doesn't go far enough, since it grants exceptions for several uses, including newspaper bags for home delivery, bags used by dry cleaners and bags used in grocery stores to wrap small foods like produce or meat. But many anti-bag advocates are embracing Hawaii's now statewide ban.
“What happened in Hawaii shows that locals can make a difference,” says Vang.