HONOLULU (AP) -- A proposal to collect fees from customers who choose disposable paper and plastic shopping bags is gaining support as it works its way through Hawaii's Legislature.
If lawmakers pass the House Bill 2260 this session, Hawaii would become the first state to enact this kind of pro-environment legislation.
The measure has been touted as a way to discourage shoppers from using single-use shopping bags by charging an extra 5 cents per bag. The average person uses 400 plastic bags each year, advocates say.
Mark Fox, Director of External Affairs for the Nature Conservancy, told a House committee Thursday that the legislation has two benefits: "It works on changing people's behavior and encourages them to bring reusable bags. And if you're unable to change your behavior, you can contribute to helping our watersheds."
Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island counties have all enacted measures to limit use of plastic bags.
Melissa Pavlicek, testifying on behalf of Safeway and Times Supermarket, said plastic bag bans on Maui and Kauai have led more shoppers to ask for costly paper bags instead of bringing their own reusable totes.
The grocery chains support the bill, however, but requested the state use some of the fee to help them cover the cost of administering the program.
Supporters note the bags require fossil fuel for manufacture, harm marine life when they end up in the ocean, burden overcrowded landfills and wind up as unsightly litter.
Sixty to 70 percent of the collected fees would go into the natural area reserve fund for watershed protection, restoration and reacquisition.
"Only 10 percent of the watersheds are currently protected, and that's taken 40 years to do," said Guy Kaulukukui, deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The disposable bag fee could help protect Hawaii's mauka forests and all priority watersheds within the decade, he told lawmakers.
Carol Pregill, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, noted the proposal puts the burden on consumers, rather than businesses.
The retailers Pregill represents support the bill, but want to ensure future changes would not result in additional costs to merchants, she remarked.
Stuart Coleman, of the Surfrider Foundation, told committee members he was excited to see the bill moving after four years of urging the state to take action.
"We feel like we're going to be turning a problem into a solution," he said.
Coleman pointed out that it was unusual to see so many diverse groups united in support.
"This is kind of win-win for everybody," he said. "We've got businesses behind us. We've got government agencies. We've got environmental groups and just a whole wide array of school groups and citizens groups and such. It's very inspiring to see everything coming together."