Kim Suspends Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

April 1, 2020, 5:12 PM HST (Updated April 1, 2020, 5:28 PM)
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File photo.

Mayor Harry Kim made a third emergency proclamation Wednesday, a portion of which suspends Hawai‘i County’s ban on single-use plastic bags for the next 60 days.

The mayor suspended Hawaiʻi County Code Chapter 14 Article 20 Plastic Bag Reduction, among other revised statutes. The decision was made, the mayor said, because the statute hinders efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Allowing single-use plastic bags for food and other material transport “should be allowed,” the proclamation continued.

“This is a short-term thing,” Kim said. “This is a good way to mitigate another element of possible contamination.”

The issue is less with plastic and more with reusable grocery bags popular in Hawai‘i. While environmentally valuable, Kim said that the virus will live on reusable bags for at least a day. Using them over and again, the mayor believes, is an unnecessary health risk during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“People take them home and then bring back the same bags, with all kinds of people touching them in between,” Kim said.

He added that single-use plastics could stop the counter space at the end of every grocery store checkout aisle from potentially becoming another site of infection spread. People often bag their own groceries when they bring their own bags, meaning there are several hands loading items from the same general area throughout the course of the day. With plastic bags, only grocery store employees handle the items.

The idea for the suspension, Kim said, came from “the retail people,” though he didn’t specify names or corporate affiliations of anyone who lobbied on behalf of suspending the plastic bag ban.

Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas disagreed with the mayor’s decision, saying he was duped by elements of the plastic industry trying to use COVID-19 as an opportunity to repeal laws that damage their financial interests.

Councilmember Rebecca Villegas.

“Prompted by (plastic) industry complaints, the Hawai‘i Department of Health recently reached out to each of our counties to inquire about their levels of concern and if they thought such a repeal of (plastic) legislation was necessary,” Villegas said.

“Thankfully, Kaua‘i County determined there is little to no risk and is holding strong to its legislation.  I expect the other counties are going to follow suit,” she continued. “Sadly, our mayor is choosing to reward and respond to the propaganda circulated by the plastics industry over the wisdom of science and common sense.”

A study published by the University of California – Los Angeles in March says COVID-19 can survive “up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.”

Plastic is also a primary component of several types of reusable bags. However, many of those are washable.

“I am deeply concerned,” Villegas continued. “I believe it’s in the best interest of our county to continue to use paper bags and properly washed reusable bags, both of which are a better choice than plastic bags. We can’t let the current COVID crisis be used as an excuse to exacerbate the climate change crisis and our long-term pollution problems on Hawaiʻi Island.”

Villegas went on to implore businesses and residents of the Big Island to continue avoiding single-use plastic bags.

Harry Kim. Photo by Josh Pacheco.

Kim has the authority as Mayor to issue emergency proclamations, as the position is granted direct authority over emergency management within the county. He can declare an emergency and suspend certain county laws under that declaration if he deems it in the best interest of the people.

Kim said the proclamation doesn’t mandate the use of plastic bags at retailers, it simply gives them the option to use them for the next two months.

“This is something they’re proposing. If they have it, they’ll use it,” Kim said of Big Island retail interests. “I guess some of them have some stuff. I don’t know how they’re going to order any of it at this point … but some people still use it for other things”

Mayor Kim suspended the following statutes by way of his third emergency proclamation, which can be accessed here:

  • Hawaiʻi County Code Chapter 14 Article 20 Plastic Bag Reduction
  • Hawaiʻi County Code Chapter 20 Section 20-35(a)(b)(d); Section 20-46(c); Section 20-47
  • Hawaiʻi County Code Chapter 21 Section 21-5; Section 32(b)
Max Dible
Max Dible is a reporter for Big Island Now. He will also serve in a news capacity for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter and radio talk show personality with the Iowa State Daily and KURE 88.5 FM, respectively, in Ames, Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing and his work as a sports columnist.
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