Although California was the first state to pass a law in 2014 prohibiting retailers from handing out plastic bags to customers, the ban was put to a referendum after pro-plastic trade groups opposed the move. The statewide ban in Hawaii requires businesses to stay away from bags made from noncompostable plastic or else pay $100 to $1,000 in penalties.
For a country that threw away 3.4 million tons of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps in 2012, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the ban in Hawaii is undoubtedly a major step toward sustainable packaging. But the ban is limited in its approach: it applies only to bags made from noncompostable plastic. Retailers are free to use compostable plastic bags, recyclable paper bags, and reusable bags.
Moreover, the list of bags excluded from the ban runs long. Plastic bags used for carrying fruit, vegetables, frozen foods, coffee, meat, and fish inside the store have escaped the ban. Retailers who use plastic bags for carrying takeout food, newspapers, laundry, and prescription drugs have also been spared. Nonetheless, the ban represents what could be the start of a game-changing trend.
Supermarkets use layers and layers of flimsy plastic bags to pack purchases. The average American takes home about 1,500 plastic bags a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. So it's no surprise that the U.S. figures in the list of top 20 offenders contributing to plastic debris in the oceans, according to a 2015 study. Plastic bags, in fact, are the fourth most commonly littered item on the coasts, as found by Ocean Conservancy.
Plastic bags may trump the eco-friendly paper bags and totes when it comes to cost and convenience, but the Earth suffers. This is because polyethylene—the most common type of plastic seen in supermarkets—doesn't wear down easily. It takes plastic bags ages to decompose, up to an estimated 500 years. A Swedish study found that chemicals used in plastic could increase the risk of diabetes.
All of those bags have helped give the Pacific Ocean a debris monument twice the the size of the continental U.S. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is full of plastic, which kills sea turtles and other marine life. If other states follow Hawaii's example, it could turn the tide against plastic in the rest of the country—and the world.