Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
June 13 2011

A Bill Whose Time Has Come…And Will Come Again

by Stuart Coleman

Nothing symbolizes the Plastic Age and our disposable, throwaway culture more than the single-use plastic bag.  How many of us have drawers or closets full of these colorful bags that we don’t know what to do with? And how often do we see these toxic tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, blooming in bushes or floating like a jellyfish at sea?

As part of Surfrider’s Rise Above Plastics (RAP) Campaign, the Hawaii Chapters have taken the lead in supporting comprehensive legislation that would reduce the amount of single-use plastic bags across the state.  The Maui and Kauai Chapters helped pass bans on plastic bags in their counties that went into effect this year, and the Big Island came very close to doing the same.  

Over the last three years, the Oahu Chapter’s RAP Committee has worked with Surfrider National and local chapters to form a coalition with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.  This year, their goal was to pass Senate Bill 1363, which would apply a small offset fee on single-use plastic and paper bags and uphold the bans on Maui and Kauai.  

Several new developments seemed to create a wave of support for SB1363 this year.  With the release of the award-winning film Bag It, chapters across the state held public screenings of the funny yet moving documentary.  Audiences enthusiastically embraced the movie’s message and our campaign to reduce plastic waste and encourage people to bring reusable bags.  The 5th International Marine Debris Conference, held in Honolulu in March, also brought a great deal of attention to the environmental, economic and human health hazards of plastic pollution.  Finally, our coalition expanded to include local retailers and grocery stores.

At the Marine Debris Conference, scientists and researchers from across the world presented evidence that micro-plastics in the ocean attract all kinds of toxic chemicals like PCBs and pesticides that make their way up the food chain and into our seafood.  Plastics also lead to the deaths of countless marine creatures each year due to entanglement and ingestion.  According to one report by, more than half of all sea turtles surveyed were found to have plastic in their system.  Sick whales that beached themselves in England and Australia were found to have pounds of plastic bags in their stomachs.

In the face of overwhelming support and testimony, Hawaii’s legislators moved forward SB1363, which was not only supported by a broad coalition of environmental organizations like Surfrider and the Sierra Club, but also business groups like the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, the Hawaii Food Industry Association, and grocery stores like Safeway and Times.  Except for opposition from the American Chemistry Council and a few individuals, over 98% of all submitted testimony supported the bill.  If the legislators followed the will of their constituents, it seemed inevitable that SB1363 would pass and become law.

There’s an old adage that says laws are like sausages, and it’s better not to see how they are made because politics can be a dirty business.  But it’s even harder to watch good, sensible bills killed for no apparent reason, and that’s just what happened to SB1363.  On Fri., April 29, 2011, legislators let the Bag Bill die in Conference Committee.  People were stunned that these elected politicians would kill such a popular bill.  But before saying any eulogies, remember that the intent and spirit of this bill will be resurrected in the next legislative session and successive ones after that—until it finally becomes law.