First paper, then plastic shopping bags have been as much a part of today’s shopping experience as choosing the items that go into them. From groceries to clothing and home improvement items, paper and plastic shopping bags have allowed consumers to carry their purchases home with ease.
In recent years, plastic bags have been banned in a number of U.S. cities and counties, including Maui and Kauai. Opponents say the bags are made from petroleum, they litter our communities, they take centuries to break down in the landfill, and they harm marine life. Recycling bags is labor-intensive and costs far more than the end product is worth.
Paper bags are no better. While the material used to make them is renewable (trees), it takes more than four times more energy to manufacture a paper bag than a plastic one. Most people think paper bags are biodegradable. But they must be exposed to air and sunlight to break down, and landfills bury them too deep for this to occur.
Recognizing that single-use bags, both paper and plastic, significantly harm our environment, governments and individuals worldwide are taking action.
Washington, D.C., is often cited as a joint government and industry success story.
What made the difference? A little over a year ago, the nation’s capital began charging shoppers 5 cents for every plastic or paper disposable bag they used when buying food or alcohol. The money collected goes to clean up the Anacostia River. According to the foundation, the program "has been overwhelmingly effective in changing behavior." Actually, it raised less money for the river cleanup than anticipated, but fortunately there were fewer bags to fish out of the water.
The state Legislature is considering a similar measure that would encourage consumers to break the single-use bag habit. Senate Bill 1363 would establish an "offset fee" for each non-reusable checkout bag provided to a customer. There would be common-sense exceptions for raw meat and other damp items, fresh produce, baked goods and prepared food for take-out, among others. Shoppers who bring their own reusable bags to the store would not be charged the fee. Single-use bags would still be available for shoppers who, for whatever reason, find it inconvenient to bring their own.
Funds generated would allow the administration to initiate programs such as litter cleanups, community outreach and education on non-reusable bags’ impact on the environment. The rest of the fee would allow businesses to recover the cost of the bags.
A remarkably diverse group is supporting this bill. Grocery chains like Safeway and Times Supermarket, environmental groups like the Surfrider Foundation, and industry organizations like the Hawaii Food Industry Association all support this measure. We all recognize that our natural environment is our most precious resource, and that this proven solution will have many long-term benefits. We ask the public’s support for this program. In the meantime, you can start helping now by recycling and reusing the paper and plastic bags you collect as you shop.
Bringing goodies home from the store will remain as exciting as ever. And by carrying them home in reusable bags, you can experience the satisfaction of improving our environment.
Gary Hanagami is executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association; Joy Leilei Shih is an executive committee member of The Surfrider Foundation.