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June 01, 2012

Activist With a Mission Helps Bag Big Victory in the Aloha State


As reported last month in this blog, on May 10 Hawai'i became the first state in the union to ban plastic bags at point of sale. The ban is already in effect in two of Hawai'i's four counties, and will be phased in over the next couple years in the remaining two.

The Sierra Club's Hawai'i Chapter and Surfrider Foundation Oahu were the main grassroots movers-and-shakers on the multi-year campaign to pass the bag ban.

"Being the first state to pass this is tremendous," says Hawai'i Chapter Director Robert Harris, the Club's staff leader in the effort. "It will have a huge impact. We estimate that 450 million bags each year will be kept out of the waste stream in the state."

Most of the activists pushing the bag ban, however, were volunteers (in the time-honored Sierra Club tradition). A great many of them deserve a shout-out, but none more than Leilei Shih, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Oceanocraphy at the University of Hawai'i.


Shih, co-captain and blogger for the Hawai'i Chapter's Capitol Watch program and captain of its "Opala" section, which monitors and advocates for bills that will reduce Hawai'i's growing waste problem, began working more than two years ago to get Honolulu County and the state legislature to pass a plastic bag ban.

"Given our geographic location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the fact that each of our roughly 1.4 million residents generates more than six pounds of trash every day, the bag ban seemed essential and inevitable," Shih says. "Still, at times it seemed as though the local governments were adamantly opposed to the concept."

In 2011, a statewide ban passed multiple committees in the Hawai'i Legislature and began garnering attention in the local press, opening the door for Shih, Robert Harris, and Surfrider Foundation Oahu coordinator Stuart Coleman to meet with legislators and explain to them why the bill was so important. (Shih also serves on the executive committee of Surfrider Foundation Oahu.)

Sadly, the bill never made it to a vote. "Having identified no obvious opponents to our bill, and having found strong support in the legislature, the death of the bag bill last year was shocking and deflating," Shih says.

But it is not in this determined activist's DNA to give up the fight. "Knowing that good environmental bills can take years to pass, I felt resolute in preparing for a victory in 2012," Shih says.

In January, the Sierra Club put on a "Forces for Good" symposium, attended by 250 people, spotlighting the Club's issues and demystifying the legislative process. Author, educator, and founder Bill McKibben gave the keynote speech via Skype, and Shih organized and moderated a panel discussion about the bag bill. "I think this event really helped kick-start the efforts of some of our long-term volunteers," she says.

Shih and a core group of activists planned events and rallies—including a February demonstration in which the lawn outside the state capitol was covered with plastic bags, below—alerted media contacts, and made sure the bag bill remained a hot topic. "It was mentioned in our local newspapers almost daily," she says. "We worked with supportive retailers like Safeway and Times supermarkets, and we found an ally in the Department of Land and Natural Resources."


Through the Capitol Watch blog, Shih got hundreds of local residents to call legislators in support of the bill, and many more to turn out for public hearings. She got a new organization, Sustainable Coastlines, involved, and spoke about the bag bill at their fundraiser.

On March 20, Shih addressed a crowd of over 700 people—and 1,000 more over live stream—during a visit by Van Jones for a Rebuild the Dream event in Honolulu. Having developed a relationship with the governor of Hawai'i and his wife, she helped organize an April 20 press conference at which the First Lady spoke. That's First Lady Dr. Nancie Caraway speaking at the press conference, below; Shih is second from right.


In the meantime, she continued building support for the bag ban at the county level, cultivating relationships with City Council members including Tulsi Gabbard, a young environmental advocate who is now running for U.S. Congress. "Tulsi championed the bag bill on the City Council," Shih says, "and all the press we generated really created momentum to pass a county ban."

On April 25, a public hearing for the county ban was held 45 minutes outside Honolulu. Through the Capitol Watch blog, Shih urged local residents to turn out, and she helped organize carpools to the hearing. It ended up being standing room only.


"Hundreds of people submitted written testimony," Shih says, "and many felt compelled to spontaneously testify, with stories of finding sea turtles in the process of ingesting plastic bags. The support was overwhelming. I felt extremely proud to see some of my acquaintances testifying for the first time in their life. When the City Council voted 7-1 to pass the bill, the room erupted in applause."

On May 4, Shih, Robert Harris, Surfrider Foundation Oahu coordinator Stuart Coleman, and national Sierra Club conservation director Sarah Hodgdon met with Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle. "The mayor indicated that he supported the concept of the ban, but he had been on the fence," Shih says. "He wanted to get more feedback, and we feared he would bend to the pressure of retailers opposed to the ban."

But local environmental groups kept the pressure on, encouraging citizens to contact the mayor and ask him to sign the bill. On May 10, he did so, and with that stroke of a pen, Hawai'i—the last state to join the union—became the first to pass a statewide plastic bag ban.

"As a Sierra Club member, this was an incredible moment," Shih says. "I felt elated, encouraged, inspired, and grateful for all the connections I had built with people to make Hawai'i's bag ban happen. I'll always remember this campaign with happiness, a sense of accomplishment, and even amusement at some of the frustrating roadblocks we encountered along the way. And I will always be grateful to the Sierra Club for providing the opportunity and platform to volunteer and make an impact."


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