Green Sea TurtleSometimes it is said that we should treat every day like Earth Day. I’ve often thought that should especially be the case in my home state of Hawaii. After all, Hawaii is one of the most remote and fragile ecosystems on the face of the Earth. Shouldn’t it be a shining example of environmental policy?

In theory, the answer is yes. The reality is different. Just as one would be mistaken to think of Hawaii as a paradise for animals, the Aloha State is often a bit behind on environmental issues. For example, it took the island of Oahu seemingly forever to institute something as basic as curbside recycling. Or consider the attempts of the near-monopoly utility company Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) to stop the use of solar energy. There have been recent glimmers of hope, however, as new policies have been proposed to help both the environment and native wildlife.

One important development has been the growing disgust over the widespread use of disposable plastic shopping bags. While plastic bags are a problem everywhere, they are a particular danger in Hawaii, where they end up in the ocean and threaten marine life. Especially at risk are the endangered green sea turtles, often called honu locally.

According to Turtle Trax, “Plastic resembles food closely enough to fool even a mature turtle. Ingested plastic is not only toxic, it also obstructs the stomach and prevents the turtle from receiving nutrition from real food. This can often lead to a lingering death.” It may seem odd to think that plastic bags resemble food, but keep in mind that sea turtles eat jellyfish, and a plastic bag floating in the ocean looks just like a jellyfish.

Baby steps have been taken to deal with the scourge of plastic bags. The island of Maui instituted a ban, effective January, 2011. (Maui, incidentally, goes through 50 million plastic bags every year.) The Big Island proposed a similar ban, but it was voted down. Kauai bans all non-biodegradable shopping bags.

Now the state legislature is proposing new laws to deal with the problem. Some bills have already failed, but one, Senate Bill 2559, is still alive. It has an odd history. SB 2559 started as a statewide ban on plastic bags, and then somehow transformed into a plastic bag fee. If passed, there would be a fee of 5-cents on all plastic shopping bags, paid by the consumer at checkout. Stuart H. Coleman, Hawaii coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation, writes, “By imposing a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper checkout bags, Senate Bill 2559 provides a needed incentive.” I wouldn’t have been so optimistic, but Coleman points out that “In Washington, D.C., plastic bag use dropped 60 percent in the first month after a 5-cent fee was imposed.”

For anyone who has had the pleasure of swimming with green sea turtles off the Hawaii coast, the supposed convenience of a plastic shopping bag doesn’t outweigh the threat they pose to these beautiful animals. While I wonder if a 5-cent fee will really have an effect, I still hope SB 2559 is passed. Something is better than nothing. And perhaps when state legislators see that other cities are doing just fine without plastic shopping bags, then maybe a statewide ban stands a chance of passing.

Photo Credit: Public Domain