(Source: Honolulu Star Advertiser)
Editorial: We must reduce our use of plastic
The durability of plastic was what made it such a groundbreaking development when the first all-synthetic version, Bakelite, was invented more than a century ago.
But that quality that is such an advantage for an item in active use — it doesn’t shatter or easily break down, even in water — becomes a curse. Plastic persists in the environment almost endlessly, and even though much of it technically can be recycled and reused, most of it these days ends up as mountains of trash in landfills, or it pollutes the ocean and is ingested by marine life.
This reality is what has prodded the Honolulu City Council to take up Bill 40, which seeks to ban single- use plastic bags and plastic goods in the sale of foods prepared for immediate consumption.
As currently written, the bill would sweep plastic bags, straws, foam containers and plastic utensils into the prohibition.
Exactly what will end up in the final measure — which should be moved along to a second-reading approval today — is unclear. There is enormous pressure on the Council from groups representing many food merchants to back off such restrictions as posing a financial burden on vendors, who often operate with a thin profit margin.
They also could make a persuasive argument that Hawaii’s plastics problem is far larger than just what the prepared-food industry contributes. Even so, these vendors can choose their service supplies, whereas retailers selling heavily packaged manufactured items have less control.
The fact is, when so little plastic can be recycled, the rational response is to curtail what customers buy and use. The common polystyrene foam containers would be one obvious target, as it contains dioxins that represent a potential health threat in the environment.
There is a cost differential between the cheap foam and the various alternatives, which include plates and containers that are leak-resistant — desirable for containment of gravies and sauces on prepared meals. They are on the higher end — $80 for a case of 500 compostable plates, more than double what a case of foam plates cost, according to one distributor’s list.
Still, that differential is relatively small per unit, a fraction of a cent. Consumers should be willing to absorb it, especially if vendors are given the opportunity to use up their inventory and ease in the newer options. The increased demand for the product should drive development of viable alternatives at a competitive cost, over time.
Eliminating plastic straws would represent an easy fix, as these don’t need to be replaced at all. And the existing retail plastic-bag ban is already largely accepted by the public.
Plastic utensils are trickier items to replace, with nondisposable forks and knives impractical especially for strictly take-out operations. But even here, biodegradable or compostable utensils are options that should be discussed and could be phased in.
There is a proposal to offset the burden on vendors, who are often mom-and-pop operations, through a property tax credit. This notion has drawn some concern from those balancing the municipal books, but this change plainly calls for some help for the businesses affected.
Making the transition away from plastic is necessary and will involve consumers changing their own habits to become more environmentally responsible. Reusable water bottles would be a start. And encouragingly, the bill’s supporters include some eateries that already have made the switch.
The larger objective here should be to press for less wasteful packaging across the manufacturing sector. The drumbeat for such a change is growing louder, and it’s time for Hawaii to hear it, and respond.