States Ban the Bag: Hawaii – What IS The Law of The Land?
Going Green in Paradise
The stunning, natural beauty of Hawaii is breathtaking and completely part of the history and culture of this archipelago. The tranquil and fierce beauty is prized and respected by locals and a major draw for the booming tourism industry. When trash, particularly plastic bag litter, began to mar these beautiful islands and harm the surrounding oceans and marine life, the people who call these islands home knew it was time to take action.
For this installment of our series, #StatesBanTheBag, we look at the unique network of plastic bag bans that currently blanket Hawaii, as well as a proposal to completely ban single-use plastic bags in all corners of the Aloha State.
Law of the Land
The government structure in Hawaii is unique when compared to the rest of the United States. There are no legally constituted government bodies below counties. This means there are no city or town ordinances and laws are passed at either the state or county level.
In the mainland U.S., bag bans first took root in cities and then eventually counties began passing bans. Only much later did states begin to take up the bag ban issue. When talk of banning single-use plastic bags first began in Hawaii the most logical thing to do was implement county bans. So that is what happened and this is how Hawaii became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags, despite not actually passing a state law.
Hawaii is made up of five counties: Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, Honolulu, and Kalawao. The vast majority of Hawaii’s residents live in just four counties, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, and Honolulu. Each of these counties has passed single-use plastic bag bans. Kalawao County does not have a bag ban, however, this county is remote and has very few inhabitants. Despite the lack of a ban in Kalawao, plastic bags are effectively banned throughout the state.
Single-use plastic bags were banned in Maui County after officials unanimously voted in favor of the ban back in April 2008. Maui’s ban became effective on January 11, 2011. The law prohibits single-use plastic bags less than 3 mils thick at retail establishments. Restaurants are also banned from distributing single-use plastic bags for take-out food. Businesses can choose to provide paper bags for free or they can charge a fee.
In October 2009, the Kauai County Council passed an ordinance requiring local businesses to exclusively provide reusable bags or paper bags made from recycled content. This single-use plastic bag ban became official on January 11, 2011.
The Big Island first took a stand against plastic bag litter in 2011 when a plastic bag ordinance was approved. Effective January 17, 2013 retailers were required to charge a fee for each plastic bag handed out. One year later, on January 17, 2014, all single-use plastic bags were banned.
Hawaii County’s ban does not regulate reusable or paper bags. This ban has also been extended to restaurants. The law was structured to roll out in phases in order to allow businesses time to use up any inventory of single-use plastic bags.
Single-use plastic bags were first banned throughout Honolulu County in April 2012. The law was intended to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. In practice, retailers switched to handing out slightly thicker plastic bags. These thicker bags were billed as reusable, however, shoppers tended not to reuse them, so plastic litter continued to be an issue.
The law was amended several times to place restrictions on the thickness of allowed bags and also ban biodegradable or compostable plastic bags. To further incentivize shoppers to make the switch to reusable bags, the latest law levies a 15-cent fee for each reusable, compostable plastic or recyclable paper bag handed out.
The final phase of Honolulu’s bag ban will roll out on January 1, 2020. At that point plastic bags of any kind regardless of thickness or even if they are deemed compostable, will not be allowed.
Senate Bill 522
In early 2019, the Hawaiian Senate approved SB 522. This proposal would ban single-use plastic utensils, straws and polystyrene containers at government agencies and eventually at restaurants and other businesses that sell food and drinks. This law would also ban single-use plastic bags throughout the state.
If passed, SB 522 would prohibit the thicker plastic bags allowed under some of the county laws while also extending the ban to Kalawao County. If this were to happen, Hawaii would have an official state-wide ban on single-use plastic bags.
Track the Movement
We have been huge supporters of the bag ban movement for a long time. We are such dedicated fans that we even started and continue to maintain a map tracking bag bans all across the world. Check out our map to learn more about the bag ban movement and stay tuned for future installments in our #StatesBanTheBag series for an in-depth look at state-wide plastic bag bans.
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