Wednesday, April 11, 2012


WRAPPING IT UP: It was going swimmingly last December. As we said at the time, Kaua`i was having it's first non-white Christmas in decades after our single-use plastic grocery bag ban had miraculously cleansed the roadsides, trees and oceans of the ugly tinsel that the use of the bags had ubiquitously wrought.

Not only had Maui similarly banned them, but the Big Island was poised to okay a bill (since passed) which, while delaying a complete ban for a couple of years, will make it three out of four counties that have cleaned up their acts.

So it was a pleasant surprise at the time when Honolulu Council Chair Ernie Martin said he would introduce a bill to add O`ahu to the list, making for an effective "county-by-county" state-wide ban.

But when the state legislature opened in January, things fell apart. As we wrote at the time, a bill was introduced at the legislature- loudly backed by the Sierra Club (SC) and their Executive Director/lobbyist, Robert Harris- to institute a fee for all grocery bags, plastic and paper.

The bill would have allowed the bans on Kaua`i, Maui and Hawai`i to stand, but the subtleties of the repercussions of the bill in reopening the issue were apparently lost on Harris and the SC.

As we wrote in February, the state "fee" bill was actually opposed by those on Maui and Kaua`i who had worked hard to pass their bans and feared that the supermarket and plastic bag lobbyists- who had battled hard against the three neighbor island bans- would use the bill to drive a wedge between those whose efforts stood to come to fruition in effectively banning plastic bags statewide and the SC's Harris, along with a couple of other environmental lobbyists on O`ahu. They included the Honolulu chapter of the Surfrider Foundation which supported the SC and Harris despite opposition from the Kaua`i Surfrider group that had worked for the ban here as we reported in February.

Right now the state bill teeters on the brink of death. But because of the discussions over the state bill, the Honolulu City Council's Martin altered his bill from an outright ban to a sort of hybrid requiring a fee at first, then leading up to a total ban (although when--and if--the latter would happen is anybody’s guess at this point).

Because of the legislative confusion and indecision, the lobbyists for the grocery stores are back using one of their arguments against plastic bag bags--that using paper bags is more costly and in the long run worse for the environment than plastic.

In yesterday's Civil Beat Sophie Cocke reported that:

On Kauai and Maui, retailers are paying about $30,000 more every year to cover the costs of increases in paper bag use, according to Melissa Pavlicek, a spokeswoman for Safeway and Times Supermarket stores.

The contention is that this is because people are actually shunning the use of reusable cloth bags and are demanding paper bags since plastic ones are unavailable.

But anyone who shops on Kaua`i and has tried to walk out of a supermarket- especially Safeway- knows this is total bullsh*t.

When we do our shopping our habit is to bring a cooler for chilled goods and, rather than try to remember to bring some cloth bags into the store, we simply put our purchases back in the cart and bring them to the car where we either put them directly in the cloth bags or on the seat to bag if necessary when we get home to carry in the groceries.

But trying to get past the checkout without our purchases winding up in paper bags--even if it's one or two small items that can be carried in our arms--is like trying get the dreaded bottle of water on an airplane: it simply cannot be done.

Never, we repeat never, has anyone shopping at Safeway been asked "Do you need a bag today?" That alone would remind people that they don't really need one, especially on Kaua`i where nobody is walking but rather driving away with their goodies.

We did a little "research" and found out that not only are check-out personnel not told to ask but they are forbidden from asking if people need a bag.

The evolution of our typical visits has gone like this since the ban on plastic bags.

At first as the check-out process began we'd say "no bags please." Then while we were busy swiping our card or fishing out the money they'd invariably place the items in a bag anyway, forcing us to remove the items.

So we decided to say it twice- once when they started the process and another time halfway through. Still all the stuff was in a bag when we looked up.

This went on and on and, no matter our level of vigilance, it was "all in the bag" as it were.

We finally took our "club card" and put a piece of masking tape on the front of it saying "NO BAGS PLEASE" with a red laundry marker. Still the stuff wound up in a paper bag even if it was simply a quart of milk.

It became like some kind misdirection magic trick. No matter how much we tried to pay attention, the had was quicker than the eye and poof- a paper bag invariably appeared surrounding our purchases.

The last time we attempted to pay full attention- almost Clockwork Orange style- we had gotten the attention of the check-out person and repeated "no bags please" three times, kept our eye on the whole process only to look to our right and find that another checkout clerk had sneaked around to the front of the checkout stand and placed all our stuff in paper bags.

Our next step is to bring in a boom box, place the volume at "eleven" and play a loop of 100 people loudly chanting "No Bags Please.... No Bags Please... No Bags Please."

Are these the actions of a store that is concerned about the use of paper bags?

Perhaps making reusable bags for 50 cents a piece like WalMart does would help but then how could Safeway lobby to make plastic available due to the "cost" of paper?

The Sierra Club does lots of good, especially through the lobbying efforts of people like Harris and the executive directors who came before him. But the fact is that sometimes they become so enamored of their own power and blinded by what sounded like a "good idea" at one time that they can’t see the forest for the trees. They become so insular and invested in their own ideas and pet projects--many of them Honolulu-centric--they can't tell they are doing more harm than good.

And because they have the power to speak for the entire environmental community, others wind up with little or no ability to lobby against a position taken by Harris and the SC when they remain blind to the repercussions of their actions.

One apparent reason that Harris has been supporting the state "fee" bill is that some of the money would have gone to a watershed protection fund. But just because it's a "neat scheme" and Harris can more easily wield his power in the legislature than the rest of the environmental community--especially when it comes to opposition from neighbor islanders--that doesn't automatically make his and SC's position a good idea.

On the contrar, it is Harris and the SC that have effectively facilitated the Honolulu Council's altering of their bill to now include a fee that will supposedly lead to a total ban sometime in the indeterminate future. But that will take another revisiting of the issue and leave the door open to more intense lobbying from the supermarket and plastic bag industries.

In this case it was easy to foresee that the industry lobbyists would take advantage of this "fee" business to throw the whole issue back up for discussion. We said it back in January.

Rather than supporting the county-by-county statewide ban, which Harris says is his and SC's eventual goal, they have stuck like glue to this convoluted "fee" system.

Fortunately, the legislative bill seems to be dying the death it deserves despite last ditch efforts from Harris. We know we speak for many when we say that all Harris is doing at this point is threatening to undo all the work we did to pass the bans on Kaua`i, Maui and Hawai`i by opening the door to further corporate lobbying.

If this keeps up it may well get to some of those neighbor island council members who opposed the bans now in place--as well as those that were fence sitting but did vote to ban plastic bag--to revisit the bans in place over here.

Please Bob--you made a mistake, just let it go. Otherwise we may have to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy just to keep the gains we have made. We have our hands full already dealing with Safeway's paper bag policies--we know they'd just love to start wrapping their "gifts" in plastic once again.

No comments: