JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Supermarkets oppose a ban on plastic bags, and even enviromentalists note that paper isn't always better. Above, Courtesy clerk Debra Fujii hands bagged groceries for a customer at Times Supermarkets' Beretania location last week.
Bills bring ‘Paper or plastic?’ into political arena
As lawmakers consider banning plastic bags, others say reusables represent the best future
STORY SUMMARY »
The question of how to bring groceries home from the supermarket is becoming more complicated.
Campaigns are afoot in Honolulu and Maui counties to ban the bags, which are blamed for clogging storm drains, choking marine life and polluting Hawaii's beautiful shorelines.
Such a ban is already in place in San Francisco, the first city in the U.S. to take action against plastic bags.
But Hawaii retailers, for the most part, are opposed to the proposed bans, citing the extra cost of replacing them with biodegradable plastic or paper bags. They say the additional costs will likely be passed on to the consumer.
At the same time, local supermarkets are encouraging consumers to bring their own bags. All major chains are now offering their own versions of cloth or reusable bags -- along with store credit for using them.
Environmental advocates also say bringing your own reusable bag is the best solution to the disposal problem. But will Hawaii's consumers change their ways?
One possible answer comes from a handful of businesses have also sprung up to cater to a new way of thinking about reusable shopping bags -- as a fashion statement.
The Plastic Bag Bills
» Introduced: July 2007
» Author: Michael Molina
» What it proposes: Ban use of non-biodegradable plastic bags for businesses with an annual gross revenue of $250,000 or more. In 5 years, law would expand to include all businesses in the county.
» Status: Bill is in Policy Committee, expected to be scheduled for first hearing at the end of January or February.
» Introduced: November 2007
» Authors: Donovan Dela Cruz, Ann Kobayashi
» What it proposes: Bill 84 would ban use of non-biodegradable plastic bags for all businesses with an annual gross revenue of $1 million or more. Within 5 years, law would require all businesses to use recycled, compostable or reusable bags. Proposed fines of $100 to $1,000 per day for violations.
» Status: Bill is in the Planning & Sustainability Committee, expected to be heard in early February.
FULL STORY »
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Allie Tamanaha, a cashier at Umeke Market in Kahala demonstrates a ChicoBag, which comes in a pouch and unfolds for your marketing.
The ubiquitous plastic bag is blamed for clogging storm drains, choking marine life and polluting Hawaii's shores.
As two Hawaii counties -- Honolulu and Maui -- consider a ban on plastic bags, questions remain over how best to do away with them, replace them or recycle them.
San Francisco put the ban in place last spring for large supermarkets and drug stores, becoming the first city in the nation to do so. Other municipalities, stretching from Annapolis, Md. to Portland, Ore., are interested in following suit.
The U.S., however, is already behind countries like Ireland, Bangladesh and Taiwan, which have already put measures in place to limit plastic bags.
But most retailers in Hawaii are opposed to an outright ban of plastic bags for what they consider practical reasons -- the cost of replacing them with biodegradable or paper bags.
Safeway CEO Steve Burd said paper bags cost 10 times more than the conventional plastic checkout bag. The Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway has replaced plastic bags with paper bags at its San Francisco stores.
The other difficulty, he said, would be that the biodegradable plastic bags could not be mixed in with the conventional plastic bags that Safeway now accepts for recycling in bins placed near store entrances. That could contaminate the load and clog up the recycling machine.
"The reality is that it would ultimately find its way into our prices," Burd said.
Down to the consumer
Retailers that would be affected by the proposed laws say they would be caught in a catch 22 -- between doing good for the environment and passing on the high costs of alternative bags to the consumer.
The Hawaii Food Industry Association is opposed to the ban.
If the bill passes, HFIA president Richard Botti said, there will be a shortage of paper and compostable bags, and that would result in the use of more trees and energy.
The shortage would also mean substantially higher prices.
"It will be passed on to the consumer," said Botti. "Whatever the supermarket has to pay in increased costs, the consumer will have to pay for it."
Botti also said he thinks cornstarch plastic needs more research.
If introduced, they would need to be a distinctly different color from conventional plastic bags to make sure the two are not mixed up.
HFIA recently launched a "Knot Your Bag" program to combat the problem of plastic bags flying away. It also posted a section on plastic bags on its Web site, detailing how retailers should educate consumers about the issue.
Plastic bags recycled at grocery stores must be clean and dry and either a No. 2 or No. 4 type of plastic.
"The solution is not just one thing," said Botti. "It's a number of things."
The Retail Merchants of Hawaii also opposes the law, saying that the wise management of plastic bags -- and not the ban of it -- is the solution.
Botti said, however, he would support an ordinance requiring supermarkets to recycle plastic bags -- a law that does exist in California.
Besides supermarkets, Botti pointed out that other sources of plastic pollution include bottle caps, disposable diapers, electronic packaging, and food packaging.
But some local lawmakers see benefits in putting plastic grocery bags away for good.
Honolulu City councilman Donovan Dela Cruz, one of the authors of the bill, says he sees plastic bags every time he's out at Ala Moana Beach Park.
"At Ala Moana, I see plastic bags in the water every time," said Dela Cruz. "We're an island in the middle of the Pacific and we should be the greenest, bluest city in the world. We should be leading the charge and setting the example for the rest of the world."
Dela Cruz and fellow councilmember Ann Kobayashi introduced the plastic bag ban as part of a package of 18 green initiatives.
"We're open to working with various groups on the language," he said. "I'm hoping more people can offer suggestions on how we can improve the bill instead of just saying, 'I'm against it.'"
Kobayashi said she's fielded calls from senior citizens, complaining that they get paper cuts from paper bags. But Kobayashi said it's important for Hawaii to be a leader in the green movement.
Maui County Councilman Michael J. Molina called for a ban of plastic checkout bags in a bill he authored in the summer of last year.
He said the plastic bags posed a threat to marine life -- and that they were littering Maui's scenic vistas, becoming a nuisance. He says knotting the bags is not the answer, because they still fly away, and continue littering beaches, parks and roadways.
The County of Maui Recycling Division estimates that residents there each use 300 nonbiodegradable plastic bags a year -- or a total of 50 million in the county.
In addition, Molina said Maui county appropriates $180,000 each year to pick up plastic bags from fences and areas surrounding the county landfill.
Maui's version of the bill would bar businesses with annual gross revenue of more than $250,000 from using plastic bags immediately. In five years, the law would expand to include all businesses in the county.
Honolulu's version of the bill would require all businesses with more than $1 million in annual gross sales to supply biodegradable bags, recyclable paper bags or reusable bags within a year after approval.
There would be a penalty of $100 to $1,000 per day in fines for violations.
Unlike Oahu, Maui does not have H-Power, which can burn the plastic bags that end up in its landfills.
"Our numbers show it's costing us way more to recycle than the returns," Molina said, citing $4,000 per ton in costs versus $50 per ton in returns.
Stores would have six months to phase out their supply of plastic bags, he said.
"I look at this as a win-win for the environment and the retailers," he said. "Change sometimes costs money, but I think the cost will be minimal. If anything, I would think consumers would appreciate stores that are concerned about the environment."
Supermarkets in Hawaii, in turn, are searching for solutions and bracing for the change.
Safeway, Times, Foodland, and Star Market have all offered consumers their own canvas bag totes with their own logos as well as bag credits at checkout registers.
Down to Earth Natural Foods plans to halt the use of conventional checkout plastic bags this year at all five of its stores, said CEO Mark Fergusson.
Customers will be offered 100 percent compostable, biodegradable plastic bags made from GMO-free corn starch -- which cost 15 cents versus three cents for conventional bags, he said.
Citing environmental concerns, Fergusson said the switch would be made as soon as Down to Earth finds a source for a reliable supply. He said paper was not considered a viable alternative.
"The sooner we get rid of plastic bags the better," he said.
The incoming Whole Foods Market -- the largest natural foods retailer in the U.S. -- recently eliminated plastic grocery bags at two of its stores in Austin, Texas, offering customers 100 percent recycled paper bags.
Also, Whole Foods is offering "A Better Bag," a reusable bag made from 80 percent recycled plastic bottles.
Foodland's totes have turned out to be a popular item, according to Sheryl Toda, spokeswoman for Sullivan Family of Cos., which owns a total of 30 stores in Hawaii.
The first shipment of bags were redeemed in just a few days, and they have been going fast.
Foodland offers five cents credit for customers that bring in their own bags.
Carl Wissmann, CEO of Star Markets, said he did not think banning plastic bags would be the right approach to solving environmental issues.
"I certainly think we need to be responsible to the environment," Wissmann said. "I don't know that going biodegradable is the best move at this time. The costs of the bags are so incredibly high -- for the most part, the cost would be passed on to the consumer."
Wissmann said the better solution at this point may be to recycle current bags.
Star Market launched its offering of canvas shopping bags to consumers about a year ago, and also offers a 5-cent rebate. Star Market is also working on offering a bin for recycling plastic bags.
But Makawao councilman Molina says the supermarkets should realize plastic checkout bags are part of the past, especially when other countries have made efforts to eliminate them.
"I think we can do it," he said. "I think we can make the change and we can live with it."