WAILUKU - While most consumers and businesses appear to have made a smooth transition to a ban on plastic bags for retail sales in Maui County, there may be a few businesses that are not following the ordinance that went into effect Jan. 11.
Maui County Recycling Coordinator Hana Steel said the county is investigating reports of seven businesses that might have violated the law.
Steel declined to name the businesses because the investigation is ongoing, but she insisted that the county is serious about enforcing the law, which bans thin plastic, or T-shirt, bags that can easily become airborne and foul the environment.
These two photos taken eight months apart show how the flying plastic bag problem at the Central Maui Landfill has changed since Maui County’s plastic bag reduction ordinance took effect Jan. 11. This photo showing litter and the abundance of plastic bags was taken in July.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
These two photos taken eight months apart show how the flying plastic bag problem at the Central Maui Landfill has changed since Maui County’s plastic bag reduction ordinance took effect Jan. 11. This photo was taken last month.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"We will not hesitate to begin the fining process if necessary," Steel said.
Businesses that do not comply with the ordinance will generally face a warning letter at first. Then, if further noncompliance is found, a notice of violation.
A business not following the law faces a $500 civil fine for each day of violation up to 30 days. The fine escalates to a maximum of $1,000 per day thereafter.
Residents reported the possible violators, and Steel encourages people to remain vigilant. She said her four staff members don't have enough manpower to police stores every day. Violators may be reported by calling 270-7880.
Aside from reports of a few violators, "we are extremely happy with the community's response to this ordinance," said Steel, whose recycling program oversees the county's plastic bag ban education program as well as enforcement of the ordinance.
"The first day of the bill, we did a baseline study of about 10 stores. What we discovered (was) that on the first day of this bill, 52 percent of the customers were refusing bags or had their own bags," Steel said.
"Since then, what we have noticed is the public bringing reusable bags to the store, but oftentimes not enough. So we really like to request all families increase their number of reusable shopping bags."
The new ordinance prohibits businesses from giving out plastic bags at the point of sale, including at swap meets, fairs and festivals. Proponents of the measure sought to eliminate the thin plastic bags that would fly away in the wind and become an eyesore and environmental hazard. The bags would get stuck in trees and fences, and pollute the ocean where they harm marine life.
Businesses are permitted to provide customers with paper bags and thicker reusable plastic bags that adhere to ordinance guidelines. Some stores also have reusable bags for sale. Stores are not required to pass out paper bags.
At Haiku Grocery Store, Manager Doug Fujiwara said complying with the new law has "been easy" for the business and its customers.
"It's been a real smooth transition for us," he said last week.
After the plastic bag ban was announced but before it took effect, the store stopped ordering plastic bags and started to give out boxes as well as continued to use paper bags.
He said the boxes were a hit and still are.
"That was well received by the customer," Fujiwara said.
He added that a lot of the store's customers are environmentally conscious so it wasn't necessary to do much education and outreach because people brought their own reusable bags as well as scooped up the cardboard boxes the store offered.
Things also have been going smoothly at Home Maid Bakery, where Operations Manager Wayne Takaki said, "We haven't had any complaints or anything (with the ordinance). Everybody is going with the flow."
The bakery has paper bags to give out, but Takaki said people don't need paper bags for bakery goods, including the popular malassadas, which are placed in a pastry box. The bakery has available thicker plastic-handle bags, which are provided by request or with large purchases.
"So far so good," Takaki said of the ordinance.
Even major retailers, such as Macy's, have changed their routines.
A Macy's spokeswoman said the retailer's stores on Maui and Kauai, (which also has a plastic bag ban), have handleless paper bags that are only featured on those islands.
The Macy's chain also offers paper shopping bags with paper twist handles, which are available at all Macy's locations.
The spokeswoman said she couldn't give a price tag for the special paper bags for the two islands, but she acknowledged that they are more costly for Macy's than plastic bags.
Even before the ordinance went into effect, some merchants were concerned about customers placing unpaid items into their reusable bags, which could lead to sticky situations where merchants may not know who paid for their items.
Fujiwara acknowledged that is a concern and asks that people refrain from placing items in their reusable bags until checkout.
Some Maui News readers and businesses also are worried that the reusable bags may become unsanitary from repeated use and after being used for purposes other than carrying groceries.
Steel advises that people wash the bags, or, if they are not washable, rinse them and dry them inside out.
"It would be just like anything you use on a regular basis," she said.
Steel said the "unsung heroes" of the new ordinance's implementation are the cashiers and clerks, who have been trained to ask customers if they brought a reusable bag and if they really need a paper bag.
"That really counts," she said.
Steel said another challenge is educating Maui's visitors and the frequent new residents to the islands.
The Maui County Council passed the ordinance in August 2008. It was introduced by former Council Member Mike Molina.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.