In recent years, Hawaii put in place the nation’s first statewide ban on plastic bags at store checkout counters. Hawaii County led the way in 2013, followed by the other counties in subsequent years. Then a ban on polystyrene foam food containers took effect in Maui County in December, and Hawaii County followed suit last month.
The impulse to continue the push for ambitious legislation as a means to reducing plastics waste that pollutes the ocean is commendable. The latest effort, introduced by Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan, is a bill — drafted in broad strokes — to ban foam containers and other non-compostable items for serving food.
Bill 40 prohibits food vendors from distributing “plastic service ware,” but also allows the city to grant hardship waivers. Such a strategy is sensible, given that many businesses would have to eliminate inventories of plastic utensils, stirring sticks, straws, drink bottles and foam clamshell containers.
The Council should consider a phase-in strategy, starting with ubiquitous foam containers and plastic straws. Polystyrene foam, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “styrofoam,” is neither biodegradable nor compostable in any viable sense. And straws are an easy target for environmental change because, for the most part, they’re nonessential.
Still, any straw provision should addresses concerns expressed by disability advocates, who have opposed flat-out bans proposed on the mainland and elsewhere, because alternatives such as paper straws and reusable straws may not work as well for disabled people.
The need for a polystyrene ban is greater on neighbor islands, where the trash ends up in tightly-limited landfill space. Honolulu delivers it to HPOWER, to be burned as an inexpensive source for fuel. But to that, environmentalists have countered that unlike polystyrene, compostable containers don’t release toxic ash and smoke when incinerated.
In testimony supporting the bill, the Sierra Club of Hawaii points out that action is needed to combat growing environmental and health concerns. For example, microplastics — tiny particles resulting from plastics break-down — have been found in more than 100 aquatic species, many of which end up on dinner plates.
Predictably, the bill’s opponents say a switch to typically more expensive environmentally friendly service ware would likely mean price hikes for customers. Rather than forcing change, the Hawaii Food Industry Association has suggested encouraging businesses to reduce waste through incentives, such as tax credits.
Incentives are worthy of consideration, as is a push to help grow the entrepreneurial market for locally produced, green alternatives to this set of fossil-fuel based products.
For the past five decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has permitted the use of polystyrene for food service-related items. However, due to environmental concerns, since 1990, Honolulu has limited restaurant use of foam containers to those that do not contain chlorofluorocarbons. The city should now move toward doing away with them entirely.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers weighed a hard-hitting bill that initially proposed banning restaurants, stores, wholesalers and government agencies from distributing and using a similar set of throw-away items. In the bill’s final version, which won approval from the Legislature and Gov. David Ige, the ban was replaced with creation of a “plastic source reduction working group” to make recommendations for cutting single-use food service items and packaging filler.
The state’s absence of action effecting even one element of change in Hawaii is disappointing. For the sake of better protecting Oahu’s future, the City Council should take its next tangible step toward ridding Oahu of plastics blight.