Is Honolulu’s Plastic Bag Ban Working?

Honolulu’s bag ban proved to be as flimsy as, well, a plastic shopping bag.
Photo: Rafael Bergestrom 


If you thought the ban that went into effect on July 1 was going to rid O‘ahu of plastic bags, you were probably surprised July 2 if you walked into a store and were offered what seemed to be the same old choice—paper or plastic. While doing away with the flimsy, ghostly bags that were clogging our landfills, the ban, it seems, had some holes in it. The biggest one allowed for a bag to be called “reusable” if it was 2.25 mils thick, with sturdier handles. 


While some stores, including Safeway, Foodland and Office Depot, honored the spirit of the law, others, including Times and Walmart, substituted the heavier plastic bags that were not only made of the same banned plastic, but used much more of it. (Many small outlets, flea markets and swap-meet vendors simply kept handling out the old, flimsy banned bags.)


At the end of two weeks, both Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council chair Ernie Martin indicated their disappointment with noncomplying stores and talked tough about taking further action. But, reached a few months later, Martin sounded more philosophical: “Consumers and merchants are still adjusting. It is probably too early to talk about closing loopholes. I believe people in general want to be more environmentally responsible, and businesses are sensitive to consumer preferences.”


Asked to comment, Lori Kahikina, director of the Department of Environmental Services, issued a statement saying, in part, “The larger retailers are in compliance.” While legally correct, this hardly impresses Surfrider Foundation coordinator Stuart Coleman. “A lot of people said, ‘That’s not right. That’s not fair play.’” Public pressure indeed swayed Longs Drugs into going without plastic soon after the ban. To keep the heat on, Surfrider organized a plastic bag “trashion” show outside Walmart in July. 


The ban seems to be gaining momentum—and the city’s educational visits to green markets, flea markets and swap meets are inducing compliance. But most people still seem glad to accept a paper bag when needed. “Retailers will become increasingly more responsive to the spirit of the law once they are able to balance it with the demands of their business,” says Martin. “We need to give everyone a real opportunity to fully comply with the new law.”


In other words: If you ban it, they will come—around. Eventually.