The Green Leaf

Paying for plastic

February 10th, 2012

The plastic bag monster, played by James McCay, made an appearance at Thursday's press conference supporting a bill proposing a 10-cent fee for each checkout bag. Photo by Star-Advertiser photographer Cindy Ellen Russell.

The plastic bag monster, played by James McCay, made an appearance at Thursday's press conference supporting a bill proposing a 10-cent fee for each checkout bag. Photo by Star-Advertiser photographer Cindy Ellen Russell.

Would paying an extra 10-cents for that plastic checkout bag at the supermarket get you to bring your own bags?

Backers of House Bill 2260 and Senate Bill 2511 believe it will.

Unlike laws banning the sale of single-use, plastic checkout bags which went into effect on Maui and Kauai counties about a year ago (with Hawaii county to follow suit next year), this bill takes the strategy of placing a fee on them. A dime per bag, to be precise.

Backers of the bill — including environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Sen. Mike Gabbard (sponsor of the bill), DLNR first deputy Guy Kaulukukui and students from elementary school to college — held a press conference Thursday afternoon to rally support for the measures.

For once, business groups like the Hawaii Food Industry Association and Retail Merchants of Hawaii actually support this plastic bag bill. Safeway and Times also wrote letters supporting the bill.

I asked Stuart Coleman of the Surfrider Foundation: "Why support a fee instead of a ban like neighbor isle counties?"

He says backers believe the fee is a better strategy than a ban (several bills were introduced in past years, with no luck). But in counties that have implemented bans, says Coleman, the use of paper takeout bags has gone up dramatically.

Paper isn't necessarily any better for the environment than plastic. It takes almost four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as a plastic bag (plus the shipping required to get it here). They also cost a lot more.

If you're willing to pay a fee (which will go for both plastic and paper carryout bags, according to the bill's current draft), the bill proposes that a portion of funds raised through the bag bill fees support the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' watershed initiative.

"This is a way to take a problem and turn it into a solution," said Coleman. "This is completely avoidable. All you have to do is use a reusable bag."

Washington D.C. passed a five-cent bag fee (on single-use carryout bags) in 2010, with the goal of generating revenue for cleanup efforts at Anacostia River. The "Skip the Bag, Save the River" initiative hasn't generated as much revenue as estimated for the river, but it's effectively reduced the consumption of single-use, carryout bags by at least 50 percent. It seems to have worked in Ireland, which passed a plastic bag tax in 2002.

It's an interesting idea. Right now, supermarkets like Foodland, Down To Earth and Whole Foods will give you a 5-cent credit for every bag your bring in at checkout. Unfortunately, Safeway doesn't offer it any more.

The 5-cent incentive doesn't seem to have much impact, though, with people jumping on the bandwagon of bringing your own bag to collect that credit.

And let's face it — only a small percentage of the Hawaii population is really going to bring in their own bags out of a concern for the environment. It just isn't happening. But budget-conscious shoppers (we pay enough just to live in Hawaii, don't we?) might just balk at the idea of paying an extra 10-cents per bag at checkout.

Then again, some people won't care about the extra 10-cents per bag.

Maybe this will work. It has the support of more backers than past bills proposing a ban on plastic checkout bags in Honolulu. Maybe in the next generation, more people, like the students who showed up to support the bill, won't think much of bringing their own bags to the store ( or gripe about how they'll pick up dog poop or line their wastebaskets).

We do need to care about the proliferation of single-use, plastics in our everyday lives — from plastic bags to plastic takeout boxes, forks and spoons. It's not just about litter, but about the impact on our environment and our health.

Our lives are just too plastic, and if it doesn't end up cluttering the landfill (where it doesn't break down), it ends up in our waterways and ocean, potentially impacting human health.

If you haven't seen it, watch Bag It The Movie.

If you don't bring your own bags to the store, maybe you can start that habit now (it only takes three weeks to start a new habit). There are some pretty cool reusable bags out there, too. My favorite ones fold into a pouch and are easy to fit into your purse.

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