Is Oahu's Plastic Bag Ban Working?

Jul 16, 2015

Credit Molly Solomon

It’s been two weeks since O‘ahu’s plastic bag ban went into effect. But not everybody is happy with the results. Environmentalists say a loophole in the new law allows retailers to still use plastic bags. HPR’s Molly Solomon has more.

The law was meant to ban single-use plastic bags. Those are the thin, more flimsy ones grocery stores use to bag your items. That all changed July 1st, when the law went into effect on O‘ahu, making it the final county to enforce a bag ban in the state. But unlike on the neighbor islands, Oahu’s new law wasn’t an outright ban. It still allows for exceptions, including the use of a thicker plastic bag that’s at least 2.25 mils thick.

“It’s almost like a plastic bag switch rather than a plastic bag ban,” said Suzanne Frazer, the president and co-founder of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai‘i, also known as B.E.A.C.H. She says the ban is doing little to curb plastic debris. Her organization surveyed Ala Moana Beach Park after the Fourth of July weekend and found it littered with plastic bags. Nearly a third of them were the new thicker variety. Frazer says retailers are taking advantage of this loophole in the law and is concerned it will have a negative impact on our environment. “They still float, they still blow around in the wind, they still can be eaten by marine life and kill sea turtles,” said Frazer. “People are still seeing them as a disposable plastic bag -- which they are, they’re just thicker.”

Other environmental groups argue that the use of these thicker bags undermines the overall message behind the plastic bag ban. “While they may be within the letter of the law, calling a thicker plastic bag sustainable and reusable is missing the point,” said Stuart Coleman, the Hawaiian Islands coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s also very disingenuous.”

A recent survey of O‘ahu businesses by city officials revealed 44% planned to use recyclable paper bags, 31% would use the thicker reusable bags, and the remaining quarter would opt for compostable bags. Lori Kahikina is the director of the city Environmental Services Department. She echoes concerns over the thicker plastic bag alternatives, which she says actually persist in the environment longer. “It’s just going to take that much longer to break down,” said Kahikina. “So are we really helping the environment?”

O‘ahu’s bag ban includes a list of nearly a dozen exceptions, allowing plastic at restaurants, dry cleaning, and for bagging fruits and vegetables. Kahikina says that’s in sharp contrast to bag bans on neighbor islands, which tend to be more all-encompassing. “If we watch what our brothers are doing on the outer islands, they’re surviving,” said Kahikina. “So I think, inevitably, that’s the direction we’re going to have to go.”

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council Chair Ernie Martin recently told Hawai‘i News Now they were frustrated with all the exceptions in the law, and would be open to tightening the ban further down the road.