On January 11, I forgot my reusable shopping bags. I’d seen the ominous “1-11-11” signs and the “B.Y.O. Bag” posters announcing the impending arrival of the countywide plastic bag ban, so I was nervous I’d be scolded or at least given a dirty look. Instead, the K-mart cashier loaded my items into a large brown paper bag without a word. I was initially relieved, but that quickly faded to disappointment. Was this going to be the result—people simply switching from plastic to paper without batting an eye? Or would residents get behind the spirit of the law?
The ban has only been in place three months, so we don’t have any definitive answers. But it’s a good time to take a closer look.
The County Council passed the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance—which prohibits businesses “from providing plastic bags to their customers at the point of sale” and carries a $500 fine for noncompliance—in August 2008. The lag in implementation was intended to educate businesses and the public, though that effort didn’t ramp up until the waning months of the Tavares administration in 2010.
When we interviewed him, Solid Waste Division chief Tracy Takamine said no businesses have been fined so far, though he added he doesn’t have the funds to send out bag police. “We find out on a complaint basis,” he said. (On April 6, Recycling Coordinator Hana Steel told The Maui News the County is “investigating” several alleged violations.)
You can call 270-7880 to report scofflaws. It’s worth noting, however, that a loophole allows three-millimeter plastic bags under the assumption that they’re more likely to be reused and won’t blow away as easily. One millimeter is equal to .001 of an inch. Eyeball that.
The ordinance also requires a report by September 1 to assess how many customers are bringing in reusables versus taking out paper bags. But Takamine said any report will be inconclusive. “Just because that requirement was put in doesn’t mean we will get good information,” he said. “We do not have funds to do anything.”
Takamine said his staff did go out in January to do a count, but cautioned the results aren’t scientific. (MauiTime conducted its own unscientific poll at stores in Kahului, Kihei and Upcountry and found that only about one-quarter of shoppers brought their own bags.)
Yet Takamine expressed some optimism. “I see people bringing bags,” he said. “People have changed [their] mindset since this ordinance.”
Jerry Masaki, general manager at Pukalani Superette, estimates at least half of his customers are now bringing their own bags (though he also said there’s been an unintended side-effect: more missing shopping baskets). “Not like they had a choice, but the bulk have changed over,” he said.
Masaki remembers the days when plastic was seen as preferable to paper. “A long time ago stores always used paper bags and boxes,” he said. “Then the nature conservatives complained about cutting down trees, so we switched over to plastic.”
Bonnie, a K-Mart employee who asked that we not use her last name, isn’t a fan of the plastic bag ban as a cashier or as a consumer. “I don’t like to put cold wet stuff in paper bags,” she said. “I guess it’s better for the environment, but paper is not so good either.”
Kyle Enriquez, an employee at the Makawao recycling center, said he’s noticed a slight decrease in litter since the ban went into effect. At the same time, he noted the numerous produce bags and sandwich bags still floating around the parking lot.
“I’m not a visionary, but I saw the ban coming,” said Arthur Blaquiere, a shopper at Pukalani Superette who was sporting a Foodland-brand reusable bag when we spoke to him. He said his friends used to laugh at the enormous stash of plastic bags he was saving. “I told ’em, ‘You’re gonna be asking me for those bags someday.’ They fit the trash bin so perfectly.’”
Some businesses have come up with creative ways to adapt to the bag ban and motivate consumers. Krystal Vogel, a cashier at Pukalani Superette, handed out gold stars to everyone who brought in a bag. Other stores, like Paia’s Mana Foods—which never carried plastic bags—and Foodland offer shoppers incentives like credits or free giveaways.
The Kahului Wal-Mart has taken a different approach, opting not to provide paper bags to shoppers and instead sell their blue-logo reusables for 25 cents. A hurried couple from Washington who were carting out at least a dozen blue bags told us they found the bag ban “annoying,” adding in a deadpan tone, “save the whales.”
Other tourists praised the ban as progressive. When a Wal-Mart cashier informed Wally Williams from Connecticut that bags were only available for purchase, he was enthusiastic. “All the islands should do that,” he said. “All the states should do that.”
In fact, Kauai has implemented a similar ban, as have many municipalities on the Mainland (San Francisco, unsurprisingly, was the first). Oregon is currently considering a statewide ban. Clearly the trend is growing.
Not everyone sees it as a panacea. “Banning things is a short-term, patchwork solution to a larger rubbish problem,”
Then there’s the question of whether cloth or thick-plastic bags consumed in mass quantities are any more environmentally friendly than the disposable satchels they’re meant to replace. Reusables are great—if they’re reused. If people lose them, damage them or fail to clean them and then throw them away, they can create an even bigger trash problem.
Still, despite its faults and deficiencies this is an effort worth rallying around, especially on a small island with a rapidly swelling landfill. I may have forgotten my bags on 1-11-11, but I’m going to do my best to remember them tomorrow.