State of the Beach/Perspectives/Hawaii Plastic

From Beachapedia

Home Beach Indicators Methodology Findings Beach Manifesto State Reports Chapters Perspectives Model Programs Bad and Rad Conclusion

Legislation to ban single-use plastic bags is win-win for Hawaii

By Stuart H. Coleman

Our landfills are so overloaded that the City and County of Honolulu tried to ship tons of our trash to the mainland last year.

In the past six months, we have seen our opala (trash) problem cause a huge fire down on the docks, where the huge bales of trash had festered for months. More recently, we witnessed a toxic flood of trash and medical wastes flowing from our landfills down to the Leeward Coast after the heavy rains in January.

Faced with such disastrous fires and flood, it's time to talk trash. We have to reduce our waste stream and take better care of our island home.

As part of the Surfrider Foundation's national Rise Above Plastics Campaign, tens of thousands of volunteers in Hawaii and across the country have stopped using single-use plastic bags and bottles. Every person who stops consuming these wasteful products saves each year an estimated 400-500 single-use plastic bags and 160 plastic bottles from going into our landfills and trashing our environment. Collectively, we have already made a huge difference, but we still have a long way to go.

Americans go through more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, yet less than 5 percent is ever recycled. Most of these petroleum products end up clogging our landfills, which are already overflowing. Studies show that removing plastic bags from the landfills will extend their use by years.

Some governmental officials say that the bags can simply be burned at the HPOWER plant, but this is a costly solution that only leads to more air pollution, global warming and tons of toxic ash that end up at the landfills (250 tons per day at $100/ton). This ash and residue is full of heavy metals and dioxins that are extremely toxic, and investigators are still trying to determine how much of this was spilled along the Leeward Coast last month.

Plastic bags are like toxic tumbleweeds, and our island breezes blow them out to sea. Floating in the ocean, they look like jellyfish and are often eaten by sea turtles and other endangered creatures. Plastics of all kinds are the No. 1 source of marine debris, and millions of seabirds, fish, marine mammals and sea turtles die each year due to ingestion and entanglement.

Most people in Hawaii now realize that wasting more than 350 million single-use plastic checkout bags each year is wasteful and bad for the environment. The solution is simple: Stop using them and bring your own reusable tote bags. That's why we support Senate Bill 1059, which would ban plastic bags, and House Bill 998 and Senate Bill 1363, which would impose a small fee on all single-use plastic and paper bags in order to remind people to bring their own reusable ones.

There has been a groundswell of support in Hawaii and across the world for legislation to reduce the use of single-use bags. In Maui, Kauai and counties around the country, bans on plastic bags went into effect in January. In Washington, D.C., a 5-cent fee on plastic bags dropped usage 80 percent in the first year. The fee bills would also bring in needed revenue, and they are not taxes because they can be avoided just by bringing a reusable bag. Seeing the wisdom of this common-sense legislation, a coalition of stores like Safeway and Times and the Retail Merchants of Hawaii now supports the fee bills.

Most of us use plastic bags only for the short trip home from the store, but they last hundreds of years. How wasteful! That's why the Rise Above Plastics Coalition supports these bills, which will charge a fee on single-use plastic and paper checkout bags to cover the "hidden costs" (almost 17 cents per bag) that taxpayers spend to subsidize the collection and disposal of these wasteful products.

Reducing the proliferation of plastic and paper bags is a win-win scenario for the state and the stores, the people and the environment. It's time to take better care of our island home.

Stuart Coleman is the Hawaii Coordinator for Surfrider Foundation.

This article originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on February 16, 2011.