By NANCY COOK LAUER
The first month of Hawaii County’s plastic bag ban seems to have been a resounding success, members of the county Environmental Management Commission learned Wednesday.
A full 80 percent of shoppers were observed using reusable shopping bags in staff surveys of shoppers at grocery stores and big box retailers in both West and East Hawaii in the month since the county ban went into effect, said Recycling Coordinator Linda Peters. That compares to 13 percent before the bag ban went into effect.
Peters cautioned commissioners that more data is needed before the county can declare victory over the plastic bag, but she credited an aggressive public information campaign with getting shoppers prepared for the transition.
“It’s higher than what we saw on Maui and Kauai, so we’re pretty happy about that,” Peters said.
Hawaii County became the third county in the state to adopt a plastic bag ban on Jan. 17. Under the rules, retailers can continue giving customers the plastic bags for a fee until Jan. 14, 2014.
Only 25 percent of Kauai shoppers were bringing their own bags in the first year of the program there, while about 50 percent of Maui shoppers brought their own bags during the first year of the program.
Hawaii County has a $56,304 contract with Out of the Sea Media for educational campaigns and materials such as flyers, ads, banners and bags.
Shoppers are increasingly remembering to take reusable bags into the stores with them, and many retailers have posted large reminders at their entrances. But it’s a habit that takes some getting used to.
“People come to the front of the store and do the forehead smack and then run back to their cars for their bags,” observed Commissioner Sherm Warner.
The county has stressed a transition to the reusable bags, rather than pushing the option of paper bags in its promotional efforts, Peters said. Many retailers are offering a few cents discount for each reusable bag brought in, while charging from 5 cents to 10 cents for the single-use plastic bags they hand out.
Hawaii Island grocery retailer KTA took the bag ban a step further, charging for both paper and plastic bags as it depletes its inventory. On the Big Island alone, more than 723 tons of paper grocery bags are used each year, according to KTA. The production of those paper bags contributes to air pollution and would require 12,000 trees to be cut down.
The County Council voted to ban plastic bags because they can threaten wildlife by entangling or choking fish, sea turtles and birds.
Reusable bags, including plastic ones that are at least 3 mils (thousandth of an inch) thick, and paper bags are allowed. Also allowed are bags without handles offered to prevent contamination of food, such as raw meat, frozen foods, deli foods and unpackaged bakery times, bags without handles for produce, nuts, grains, cereal, flour, rice and candy, bags for protecting garments at a laundry or formal wear retailer, bags without handles for small retail items, including jewelry, buttons, beads, ribbon and hardware items, and bags for prescription drugs.
Nonprofit organizations are exempt from the rules.
Fines for retailers not following the new ordinance range from $250 for an initial violation notice to up to $1,000 per day. The Department of Environmental Management director has the authority to waive the fines. The county will issue one written warning of violation before fining businesses for noncompliance.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.