Is Hawaii ready to refuse bad plastics?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich
Marine debris on Green Island, Kure Atoll, at Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Photo by Claire Fackler, CINMS, NOAA

HONOLULU—It has been a long time since the era when plastic was viewed as the wonder substance. Now, many in the environmental movement wonder how to help a wasteful American public wean itself from the convenience of disposable plastic—bags, containers, and items that some say contain questionable chemicals.

Chances are there are more than just a few plastic bags in your home. If you have young children or grandchildren, there are likely more than just a couple of plastic toys around the house, too. But in future, will there be as much plastic in our lives? And what kind of plastic will it be?

In Hawaii, groups including the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation are working to promote bills moving through both chambers of the Legislature to ban plastic bag distribution by retailers unless the bags are reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable. The organizations are especially promoting HB 2125, which would generate a per bag fee should customers request a standard issue plastic bag to offset the negative impact on the environment.

The bill is similar to measures adopted elsewhere, including Ireland, where there has been a fee per bag law since 2003.

?Plastic bags are not free,? says Robert Harris, Executive Director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter. He cites a Seattle study which ball-parked that city?s annual cost for plastic bag waste pickup and disposal at $200,000—an expense that does not include the initial purchase or transportation of the bags to businesses. Harris says his research suggests an average store pays $1,000 to $1,500 per month to stock plastic bags.

Closer to home, Maui has also found their annual expenditure to clean up plastic bag waste around the island to total $200,000 annually according to Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation.

?There are a lot of hidden costs, not to mention the marine life,? Coleman says. He describes studies that estimate the cost of bag collection, disposal in landfills, and recycling to be about 17 cents per bag and says that most bags wind up in landfills. Maui and Kauai counties already have some form of plastic bag ban; earlier this month Hawaii Island tried and failed to pass similar legislation.

?It?s a false dichotomy to say plastic or paper bags. Both are bad for the environment.?

Harris and Coleman believe that of all the measures currently under consideration, HB 2125 has the best chance of passing this year. They are pleased the bill has been endorsed by several freshman lawmakers including Rep Jessica Wooley, (D, Laie, Kaneohe excluding Kaneohe Bay) and Rep. Chris Lee (D, Waimanalo and Lanikai).

Meanwhile, the Retail Merchants of Hawaii continues its opposition to another measure, SB 2559, which requires retailers in the State to distribute only reusable or biodegradable checkout bags. The group says that if retailers are faced with having to provide only environment-friendly plastic bags, many of them will opt for paper bags and that will show up in higher prices. In her February 2, 2010 testimony, Retail Merchants of Hawaii President Carol Pregill says paper bags take up more shipment volume and the additional cost will be passed on to consumers. The group also admits paper bag usage is not the best option for Hawaii merchants and says consumers are already reusing the plastic bags they receive at checkout for home trash bin liners and pet clean-up. Some retailers also have recycle bins at their location for those who don?t want to reuse.

?It?s a false dichotomy to say plastic or paper bags,? says Coleman. ?Both are bad for the environment.” The solution is to bring your own bags, he says. For those craving fashion as well as practicality, there are lots of good looking options available online and in Hawaii stores.

Harris says we still need to remember the environmental Three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. Coleman adds, ?We need a fourth R: refuse. I can?t go anywhere without someone trying to give me a plastic bag and people shake their heads when I say I don?t want one.? This is one case when just saying “no” might be easy.

What goes into plastic is also under scrutiny this session. Several bills carried over from last session and one introduced this year seek to further study or ban components of plastic including phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which often show up in toys and baby and personal products.

Phthalates are chemicals that make vinyl toys pliant as well as soft-think teething rings, bath toys, wipe-clean baby books. They are also found in personal products ranging from hairspray to fragrance. BPA is usually found in more rigid plastic disposable water bottles, hard plastic toys, and the lining of some canned products. BPA can be identified in a product if the number 7 is embossed on the bottom of the plastic item.

The controversy over BPA and phthalates is not new and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Chemistry Council say there is no basis in fact for the claims that phthalates are dangerous. Harris and Coleman aren?t so sure.

?It?s fundamentally a question of science,? says Harris. ?Do you have to affirmatively prove something does harm? When you?re talking about chemicals in low doses, but accumulated over time, tests may not consider you may be chewing a baby rubber toy and consuming it because it?s breaking down.?

Coleman puts is differently: ?It?s the death of the precautionary principle. If you can?t sell your product around the world, come to the U.S.? Phthalates are banned in the European Union and in at least 14 other countries. In 2007, California was the first state to ban products with more than a trace of phthalates.

Will Hawaii be next? Harris and Coleman hope so, though Harris says he is wary of bills that just want to create more studies. Both say they believe there is enough evidence of harm or at least potential harm—especially to children—to keep products containing phthalates and BPA off shelves, but until there is legislation to do that, consumers will have to make personal choices. And that means doing some research. While many online sites already provide consumers with lists of products containing these plastics and other toxic chemicals, the situation still comes down to who a consumer wants to trust and the philosophical argument of being safer now than potentially harmed later.

Coleman and Harris agree the most accessible first step to begin to rid ourselves of our dependence on plastic is with HB 2125 and say that both the Surfrider Foundation and Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter will continue to advocate for its passage. The pocket pinch may be small, they say, but the fee to receive plastic bags may be a softer reminder that we all need to consider the place plastic has in our lives. 

The full interview with Robert Harris, Executive Director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter and Stuart Coleman, Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation can be heard on the Hawaii Public Radio archive under the Town Square link.