A trip to the Central Maui Landfill in Pu'unene probably isn't at the top of your daily "to do" list, but if you want to see the effects of a plastic bag ban, it's arguably a trip well worth taking.
Omaopio Road, a winding stretch of asphalt that runs alongside the active area of the island's primary landfill, is widely known for one notorious roadside attraction: a thirty-foot high litter fence designed to snare airborne garbage caught in the powerful crosswinds of Maui's central valley. Installed over a year ago, the fence is impossible to miss, plugged and cluttered with errant blooms of plastic debris, like shrapnel from an unseen explosion. More than an eyesore to the community, the litter fence„virtually opaque with a trajectory of featherweight plastic bags„was indicative of a much bigger problem. Until now, that is.
When it comes to Hawai'i's fragile and diverse ecosystems, stewards of the environment have long considered plastic bags public enemy number one. The seemingly ubiquitous, single-use bag can suffocate reefs, clog waterways, ensnare marine life and become tangled in tree branches. Unfortunately, very few plastic bags are actually recycled„only 20 percent, according to the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation„and they can take an untold number of years to biodegrade.
County of Maui Recycling Coordinator Hana Steel says residents and visitors together use an average of 50 million plastic bags each year, a staggering statistic that could only be eclipsed by the amount local taxpayers shell out for a private contractor to collect rogue plastic waste at the landfill: $11,000 every month.
But today in Maui County, it's unlikely you'll hear the oft-repeated question, "Paper or plastic?" anytime soon. On January 11, 2011 Maui County (comprised of Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i and Kaho'olawe) sacked disposable, non-biodegradable plastic bags with the passage of Ordinance No. 3587, a measure intended to "preserve the health, safety, welfare and scenic and natural beauty of the County of Maui [and] encourage the use of environmentally preferable alternatives to plastic bags, such as recyclable paper bags or reusable bags."
On the very same day, Kaua'i followed suit, imposing a ban on single-use plastic bags for the Garden Isle.
In Maui County, the ordinance prohibits retailers from providing plastic bags at the point of sale for the "purpose of transporting groceries or other goods," leaving two options for business: distribute paper bags in place of plastic or ask their customers to BYOB, bring their own bag. For local businesses, there's an incentive to play by the rules and the consequence for non-compliance is costly. Any businesses caught distributing plastic bags to their customers are subject to a fine of $500 per violation, per day (up to 30 days, and then a maximum of $1,000 per day thereafter). And if there were any doubts about the law's enforceability, those have been laid to rest. As of last month, Steel says the county is investigating seven businesses that violated Ordinance No. 3587.
Take a walk through most Maui grocery stores and you'll notice that "plastic free" does have its exceptions. The law allows for the use of "permissible" plastic bags, which include those thin, extremely hard to open bags used to package meats and vegetables, dry cleaners' garment bags and bags that are "specifically designed and manufactured for multiple re-use, if the bag has handles and is at least 3.0 millimeters thick."
Dubbed by many as a "bold experiment," the dream of creating a plastic bag-free zone within Maui County became a reality for Maui County Councilmember Michael Molina last year, after he introduced the "Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance." It was a daring move for a popular tourist destination, but one that seems to have paid off in the end, particularly for the environment. In a unanimous vote, county officials approved the ordinance and on January 11, Maui County became Hawai'i's poster child for eliminating single-use plastics.
It was certainly a victory for those who sought to purge Maui County of the single-use bag, but not everyone welcomed the new law with open arms.
Prior to the passage of Ordinance No. 3587, a number of business owners testified before the Maui County Council in an effort to halt the ordinance, arguing that the law would ultimately leave them holding the bag. While many acknowledged the good intentions of the ordinance, distressed restaurant and shop owners argued that the ban would be bad for business, as it would inconvenience their customers (particularly visitors unaware of the BYOB policy) and increase operating expenses, as the average cost of a plastic bag is five cents, compared to about thirty-seven cents per paper bag.
Valley Isle businesses aren't the only opponents of the ordinance. Unhappy consumers have cited a number of complaints; namely, the hassle of bringing their own bag, as well as the unpredictable nature of paper bags, which can soil or tear easily. In addition, some have questioned the logic of replacing plastic with paper, as it seems to trade one problem for another.
County of Maui Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons says he's received a generally favorable response to the bag ban, but acknowledges that it hasn't curbed everyone's appetite.
But for many in the community, the ban is common sense. In terms of legislation, the passage of the ordinance is a milestone for Maui County. The ban has not only cut the use of plastic bags by drastic proportions, but it has also changed the mindset of island residents and visitors alike„one shopping trip at a time.
According to Steel, the evidence is in the numbers. "The [Maui County] Recycling Section surveys grocery, drug and 'big-box' stores every three months to track consumer bag use," she explains. "To date, about 50 percent of the shoppers either have their own reusable bag or refuse to take a bag [at the point of purchase] and about 50 percent of consumers are exiting the stores with paper bags."
Hawai'i Sierra Club Maui Group Chairman Lance Holter couldn't be happier about the ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. "It's definitely one of the more successful new laws," Holter says. "If you went to the dump pre-bag bill, there was a very large fence that attempted to keep the ever-expanding amount of flying plastic bags from being blown out of the Central Maui dump site into the island ecosystem. I don't know how much was spent on this fence, but it captured hundreds of thousands of runaway bags in its unique mesh. But when I visit the landfill these days, it's amazing. I don't see any bags there. This is a great example of environmental laws saving the public money immediately."
Maui's charge to put the elimination of single-use plastic bags into law quickly resonated to Kaua'i. The Big Island is trying to follow suit and has advance Bill 17 through an initial vote by the County Council, but has not been adopted yet as public hearings were requested to gauge public temperature for the bill. And laws to slow and stop the use of plastic bags are spreading across the Mainland, as far as New York City and Washington D.C., where lawmakers have upped the ante by imposing taxes on plastic bags. In doing so, both cities have successfully eliminated tens of millions of bags each month.
Now that it's out with plastic and in with paper and reusable bags, the "oops I forgot my bag" phrase is commonplace in supermarkets, pharmacies and retail shops across Maui County„proof that it can be tough to alter the status quo. To help residents make the adjustment, advance notice was broadcast several months before the ban was imposed. Maui residents were inundated with an onslaught of ominous "1-11-11" and "BYOB" warnings, thanks to a promotional campaign spearheaded by the county.
"It will take some conditioning," admits Parsons. "It's a lifestyle change for a lot of people."
When will O'ahu, the largest consumer of plastic bags in the archipelago, jump on the plastic bag ban bandwagon? Although similar bag bills have been proposed on both the county and state levels, no bills moved forward at the close of the legislative session. Of these, Senate Bill 1363, which would require businesses throughout the state to collect a ten-cent fee for each single-use checkout bag provided to a customer (plastic and paper), seemed to be the most promising.
But community groups on O'ahu, including Plastic Free Hawai'i, Kokua Hawai'i Foundation, Plastic Free Hale'iwa Coalition and Plastic-Free Kailua, aren't giving up, and they are pressuring legislators to take action„and soon.
These groups are also intent on educating the public. Kokua Hawai'i Foundation, for example, strives to elicit "consumer activism" through its Plastic Free Commitment Campaign, an effort designed to rouse community support in reducing the consumption of single-use plastics on O'ahu.
Like so many others, Holter says he hopes Maui County will inspire O'ahu to follow in its footsteps. "I'm a big proponent of the law, and I hope the rest of the state will see the light and 'bag it,'" he says. "It definitely works."
Six months after it was passed into law, Ordinance No. 3587 does appear to be working. The proof is in the litter fence alongside Omaopio Road„or rather, what's not in the fence.