A Look Inside How Hawaii's Plastic Bag Ban Came About

April 20 press conference supporting Hawaii plastic bag ban© Maui News

I was in Hawaii earlier this month, spending time with Sierra Club volunteers, and I was struck by the clout the Club's Hawaii Chapter wields in state politics. They are a force to be reckoned with, and I came away very impressed with chapter director Robert Harris.

On May 4, I sat in on a meeting with Harris, chapter volunteer Leilei Shih, Surfrider Foundation state coordinator Stuart Coleman, and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle. We were urging the mayor to sign a bill, passed by the City Council the previous week, to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout counters in Honolulu County.

The mayor indicated that he supported the concept of the ban, but he had been on the fence. He wanted to get more feedback, and we feared he would bend to the pressure of retailers opposed to the ban. But the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation Oahu, and their allies kept the pressure on, encouraging citizens to contact the mayor and ask him to sign the bill.

On May 10, he did so, and with that stroke of a pen, Hawaii became the first state in the union to pass a statewide plastic bag ban. (Hawaii's three other counties had already passed their own bans.)

That's Hawaii First Lady Dr. Nancie Caraway, above, speaking at an April 20 press conference organized by the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

Paula Carrell, the Sierra Club's State Program Director, says the Hawaii Chapter was determined to make the ban happen. "They went to the legislature; they went to local government; they went visual (with artful, albeit disturbing Capitol Lawn plastic bag displays); they went online (pictures, updates, organizing tools); they talked to everyone they knew (and many they didn't); they just refused to take No Action for an answer."

Many chapter volunteers deserve a shout-out for their work on the bag ban, but none more than Leilei Shih, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Oceanocraphy at the University of Hawaii. Shih is co-captain and blogger for the chapter's Capitol Watch program, and captain of its "Opala" section, which monitors and advocates for bills that will reduce Hawaii's growing waste problem.

Shih began working more than two years ago to get Honolulu County and the state legislature to pass a plastic bag ban. In 2011, a statewide ban passed multiple committees in the Hawaii Legislature and began garnering attention in the local press, opening the door for Shih, Robert Harris, and Stuart Coleman to meet with legislators and explain to them why the bill was so important.

The bill never made it to a vote of the full legislature. "Having identified no obvious opponents to our bill, and with strong support in the legislature, the death of the bag bill last year was shocking and deflating," Shih says.

But it is not in this determined activist's DNA to give up the fight. "Knowing that good environmental bills can take years to pass, I felt resolute in preparing for a victory in 2012," Shih says.

In January, the Sierra Club put on a "Forces for Good" symposium, attended by 250 people, spotlighting the Club's issues and demystifying the legislative process. Author, educator, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben gave the keynote speech via Skype, and Shih organized and moderated a panel discussion about the bag bill. "I think this event really helped kick-start the efforts of some of our long-term volunteers," she says.

Shia and a core group of activists planned events and rallies, alerted media contacts, and made sure the bag bill remained a hot topic. "It was mentioned in our local newspapers almost daily," she says. "We worked with supportive retailers like Safeway and Times supermarkets, and we found an ally in the Department of Land and Natural Resources."

Through the Capitol Watch blog, Shih got hundreds of local residents to call legislators in support of the bill, and many to turn out for public hearings. She got a new organization, Sustainable Coastlines, involved, and spoke about the bag bill at their fundraiser.

On March 20, Shih addressed a crowd of over 700 people -- and 1,000 more over live stream -- during a visit by Van Jones for a Rebuild the Dream event in Honolulu. And having developed a relationship with the governor of Hawaii and his wife, she helped organize the April 20 press conference at which the First Lady spoke.

In the meantime, she continued building support for the bag ban at the county level, cultivating relationships with City Council members including Tulsi Gabbard, a young environmental advocate who is now running for U.S. Congress. "Tulsi championed the bag bill on the City Council," Shih says, "and all the press we generated really created momentum to pass a county ban."

On April 25, a public hearing for the county ban was held 45 minutes outside Honolulu. Through the Capitol Watch blog, Shih urged local residents to turn out, and she helped organize carpools to the hearing. It ended up being standing room only.

"Hundreds of people submitted written testimony," Shih says, "and many felt compelled to spontaneously testify, with stories of finding sea turtles in the process of ingesting plastic bags. The support was overwhelming. I felt proud to see some of my acquaintances testifying for the first time in their life. When the City Council voted 7-1 to pass the bill, the room erupted in applause."

Mayor Carlisle signed the bill into law two weeks later -- the week after Shih, Harris, Stuart Coleman and I met with him at Honolulu City Hall. And so the last state to join the union became the first to enact a statewide plastic bag ban.

"As a Sierra Club member, this was an incredible moment," Shih says. "I felt elated, encouraged, inspired, and grateful for all the connections I had built with people to make Hawaii's bag ban happen. I will always be grateful to the Sierra Club for providing the opportunity and platform to volunteer and make an impact."

And we are grateful to you, Leilei, for seizing that opportunity and helping make history.

A Look Inside How Hawaii's Plastic Bag Ban Came About
Hawaii becomes the first state in the union to enact a ban on plastic bags at checkout counters. Sierra Club looks into how it finally came into being.

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