Currently there is a little bill with big impact making its way through the Honolulu City Council, and it’s set to make history. Bill 40, which has already passed two readings in the Council, is set to be one of the most ambitious plastic bills in the country.
Honolulu City Council governs the whole island of Oahu (the City & County of Honolulu is our official status), so while it seems like the City Council might not have that much impact, it’s actually a huge opportunity for change, especially because Oahu is the seat of state government, home to the largest population, and home to a massive (and growing) tourist economy.
Bill 40 calls for the phase out of most single-use plastic items used for our daily takeaway culture, like straws, utensils, takeout food containers, takeaway drink containers, those stupid stir stick things, and stricter rules about plastic bags. We’ve already made history here — we were one of the first states to ban plastic bags, but there are lots of loopholes and businesses have been exploiting it ever since. It’s time to make bigger changes!
Yes, this is an ambitious bill with grand goals: reducing plastic pollution overall and swapping fossil-fuel based options for more sustainable choices. As Nicole Chatterson of Zero Waste Oahu explains, this is also because our huge tourism industry brings in nearly 10 million visitors each year, which means we see roughly double the rate of per capita trash than other states. We encourage our visitors to eat out and shop, yet a growing number of visitors express guilt and dissatisfaction at the over-abundance of single-use plastic in Honolulu. This, in combination with limited recycling resources, and the fact that we burn most of our waste, makes it clear that we need to take big steps to reduce our massive plastic pollution.
Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii Director Rafael Bergstrom noted in a recent workshop that the State Department of Transportation spends an estimated $8 million annually to clean up roads and drains that get clogged with wayward trash. Our beaches are inundated with plastic trash, both floating from the Pacific but also from our own activities.
The good news is that the Council seems poised to move this bill forward! Local activists and organizations have been working for plastic reduction solutions for over a decade. While there has always been solid momentum behind this movement, it was a special election in April 2019 put Tommy Waters, a pro-environmental candidate, on the Council and at the head of the committee that is overseeing the bill, totally changing the dynamic of the council and increasing the chances for successful passage of this bill.
Of course, there is resistance to this ban. The most commonly cited argument against this smart legislation is that it will be harder for local and small businesses due to increased fees for sustainable or reusable packaging and serving options, and that it gives mainland (continental US) businesses an advantage. Acknowledging this, Bill 40 does include hardship exemptions for those businesses that really can’t change their model. Doorae Shin writes on Honolulu Civil Beat that lobbying groups like Hawaii Food Industry Association, the Hawaii Restaurant Association, and KYD are fighting Bill 40, and have been fighting for nearly a decade against all plastic reduction legislation. “Despite [reporting] that paints a picture of suffering businesses, here’s the reality: Dozens of small, local businesses have voluntarily eliminated petroleum-based plastics from their operations, with great success,” Shin explains.
For example, Kokua Hawaii Foundation has organized case studies with local restaurants and found that they can save money by switching to washable and reusable options, instead of focusing on takeout options. Justin Young, General Manager of popular Oahu eatery Koko Head Cafe, explained that for their very busy restaurant, the switch was easy: “We have been free of single use plastics for years – and we’ve only grown in sales and scope. We are not perfect – many of our food items still come wrapped in plastic, unfortunately, but the change can, and must be made. The alternative is beaches full of plastic and landfills permanently full of unnecessary waste. This bill makes so much sense.”
And based on my citizen activism via Facebook and via local news sources, much of the resistance comes from confusion about the bill… and about trash generally. One commenter asked me if he would have to give up his contact lenses and medical syringes, while another said it was only rubbish from overseas that was making its way to our shores – take a peek in at the sad state of our watersheds, rivers, and harbors, and it’s easy to see that this is our own downstream waste. Another commented that the solution is to target those people who don’t dispose of their rubbish properly. Well, yes, and the reality is we make way too much trash to responsibly manage it always. Additionally, the carbon emissions and pollution from making all the stuff that quickly becomes our waste stream accounts for 42% of our carbon emissions!
Concerned citizens, forward-thinking businesses and conscious consumers are optimistic about this bill, which is up for a special committee hearing within the next few weeks before it heads on to the final passing by the Mayor. Chatterson at Zero Waste Oahu reports that Bill 40 received overwhelming support with testimony from over 700 individuals and 59 businesses at the last hearing, while only 23 businesses and individuals testified in opposition. Despite some limited industry opposition, we hope that all sides can come to an agreement so that Hawaii will set the stage for progressive action when it comes to plastic pollution.
Thanks to Nicole of Zero Waste Oahu for her careful reading and additions for this article; follow their important work, along with other great local organizations Kokua Hawaii Foundation, Surfrider Oahu, and their Ocean Friendly Restaurant Campaign, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, and Vegan in Hawaii.