Some Chinatown merchants are not happy with the new garbage bag mandate that requires their trash be disposed of in city-required yellow bags for pickup by city trash collectors.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the yellow plastic bag mandate earlier this month to combat the community's issues with overflowing trash.
However, the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board is considering a resolution asking the city to repeal the mandate, which some members say has made the trash in the area worse.
Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board member Kevin McDonald opposes the yellow bag mandate mainly because he said the city will not pick up non-yellow bags of trash.
“The problem has gotten worse because now there’s trash that’s not being picked up. Whereas before, at least if it was in a bag, it got picked up,” he said. “Now we have trash that’s not being picked up, but left to fester on the street.”
Timothy Houghton, the Department of Environmental Services deputy director, explained that the city will eventually collect the trash left behind, but does not want to enable any unlawful behavior.
“If something was left out that was not in the plastic bags, we are keeping track of that and we’re not going to let it stay out there very long,” he said. “We don’t want to turn around and pick it up right away and encourage people, but we aren’t going to leave it out there for long because that’s not good for Chinatown either.”
McDonald was also concerned about the environmental impacts of the mandate. He said because the trash must be in a yellow bag, which is larger and thicker than the average trash bag, he has to put regular-sized bags of trash into the city bag, which creates double the plastic waste.
When the yellow bag mandate was first announced, Lori Kahikina, Department of Environmental Services director, said the thicker bags will be better for the environment.
“If you use the regular black Hefty [bags] that you buy at Costco, it’s so easy to be torn into. So you get all the little, tiny micro-plastics that are flying around,” she said. “I think this is better.”
Caldwell said that merchants double-bagging trash could be a good thing because it will make it more difficult to tear into.
Merchants in the area buy into a program to have their trash collected at a graduated rate that depends on the cubic feet of trash (unit rate) involved or a minimum charge of $30 a month. The city decides whether to charge the minimum or the unit rate based on which amount is higher.
Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board member Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock supports the yellow bag mandate because she says it keeps the trash pickup system fair for those who pay.
“I support [the mandate] in the sense, to be fair,” she said. She said some people are not paying and should be paying, and some took advantage of the situation by dumping their garbage with the trash of those who do pay.
However, she does not think that the yellow trash bags will be a lasting solution to Chinatown’s garbage problems. Shubert-Kwock suggested that the only fair way to deal with the trash is to charge everyone in the area a flat rate for trash pickup and do away with the buy-in program.
The city is providing the yellow bags free through the end of January 2020, but merchants will have to start paying for them through Island Plastic Bags Inc. at about 60 cents per bag in February 2020.
Houghton said Island Plastic Bags was selected as the sole retailer because the city believed that it was the only plastic bag manufacturer in Hawaii.
“As I understand it, they are the only manufacturer of plastic bags here so we did end up going with the manufacturer that was available quickest,” he said. “If had to order them from the mainland, it would have taken a substantially longer period of time.”
It turns out, HI-V Plastic Bag Manufacturing also manufactures plastic bags in the state.
Houghton also said that because the yellow bag mandate is a pilot program the city did not follow a bidding process for the project.
“If it were to go long term, we would go bid and find the best price that would support both us and the businesses in procuring those bags in a fully competitive process,” he said. “Basically, they were the only provider locally in a short time.”
Caldwell does not see the yellow bag mandate as a long-term solution to Chinatown’s trash issues. He hopes to negotiate with the United Public Workers Union, which represents trash collectors, to implement locking plastic trash bins.
“We’re trying to see does it work, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else,” he said. “The long-term goal is to get to bins.”
Neighborhood board resolutions are non-binding, but if the board voted in favor of the measure, a spokesperson from the mayor’s office said the Department of Environmental Services would take it under advisement. However, whether the program will continue will mainly be determined by its effectiveness.
“We’re trying to address a health and safety issue in Chinatown,” Caldwell said. “If they want to take a vote and vote it down, then that’s their right. Hopefully, they’ll support this. I believe it’s making it better, and an improvement in Chinatown.”
The resolution will be up for consideration Thursday 6 p.m. at the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board meeting, 1 Aloha Drive, Multi-Purpose Room 2.