Hawaii’s plastic bag ban goes into effect, but…

Cat in a plastic bag.
CC BY 2.0 Rosana Prada

On the first of this month, Hawaii became the first state in the U.S. to put a plastic bag ban into effect. California also voted a ban into law last year, but that measure is suspended for now due to heavy lobbying from pro-plastics groups to get a public referendum. It will be put to a state-wide vote on in November of 2016.

Hawaii’s ban was voted on back in 2012, and starting this month prohibits grocery stores from handing out certain types of plastic bags. However, the new law allows stores to provide reusable biodegradable plastic bags to customers.

Plastic bag bans have been used by cities and local governments to reduce solid waste. Hawaii’s law also aims to curb marine litter. But as written, the exemptions in Hawaii’s rules constitute a significant loophole. The law defines plastic bags that are 0.0025 inches and has handles as reusable. The Huffington Post reports that on July 2, some retailers in Hawaii, including Walmart, adapted to the new law by handing out slightly thicker plastic bags.

"That's more plastic that they have to use to make the bag which is more of a finite resource,” Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s executive director Kahi Pacarro told Hawaii News Now. “They also pose just as much of a risk to our marine creatures.”

There are also other exemptions. Restaurants are still allowed to use plastic bags for takeout and to transport prepared foods, well as pharmacies and dry cleaning and laundry operations.

However, the ban is a step in the right direction, and advocates like Pacarro say they will continue to work towards closing the loopholes. Although it’s not required by the law, some stores have begun charging shoppers a few cents for bags and others have switched to paper bags. Shops that fail to comply with the law may be fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000 USD.

In any case, the ban will likely make shoppers in Hawaii much more aware of the problems surround disposable plastic and encourage them to use their own bags. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American family took home an estimated 1,500 plastic shopping bags in 2008. But as bag bans gain momentum around the country, hopefully that number can start to drop.

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