HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Oahu's controversial plastic bag restrictions that allow plastic bags to continue to be used by many retailers also allow them to use compostable bags, even though there is no composting facility anywhere in the state.
Environmentalists said compostable bags are better than the now-banned plastic bags. But cost was a major factor cited by Oahu merchants why they wanted the compostable bags added in a compromise measure that was approved by the City Council last September.
Compostable bags are roughly a nickel cheaper than the paper bags with recycled content that many merchants are using after the new plastic bag restrictions went into effect on Oahu July 1.
Last year, the nonprofit environmental group Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and other environmentalists asked the Honolulu City Council not to allow retailers to use compostable bags.
"I've voiced my concern about the compostable bag loud and clear from the beginning and they pose just as much danger in the ocean. They look just like a regular plastic bag. The only difference is instead of being made out of oil, they're made out of GMO corn," said Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.
But the Council passed the so-called plastic bag ban last September, Allowing retailers to use compostable bags, even though there is no large-scale composting facility in the state. That means any compostable grocery bags will just be burned at the city's garbage-to-energy H-Power plant, just like other trash.
"Please understand, of course, that we do not compost the bags. They still would be bags that would be out there potentially as litter," said Tim Houghton, the city's deputy environmental services director, when he testified before the Council's public works committee last August.
"Our preference would be to continue a total ban on plastic bags, whether it's compostable or non-compostable," Houghton told members of the City Council.
Retailers said the now-banned skinny plastic bags cost them the least money, about two cents each. While compostable bags cost around ten cents a piece, paper bags made from 40-percent recycled material cost about 14 cents each. So compostable bags cost retailers less, even though there's nowhere to compost them.
Council Chairman Ernie Martin wrote the compromise measure that added compostable bags to the bill that passed the Council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed even though he preferred an all-out plastic bag ban.
Both men told Hawaii News Now Monday they are open to fixing some of the loopholes in the law that went into effect two weeks ago, particularly the one that's allowing merchants to use thicker, supposedly re-usable plastic bags. Walmart, Longs Drugs and Times Supermarkets are using those thicker plastic bags. Safeway, Foodland and Office Depot are using paper bags.
In a statement, Sheri Sakamoto, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii said, "We look forward to working closely and collaboratively with Mayor Caldwell, the City Council, and all other stakeholders to effectively address any outstanding issues relating to plastic bags and/or plastic materials."