There’s ample evidence that throwaway plastics are getting into the ocean, causing harm to marine life and other environmental damage while marring the state’s picturesque shorelines.
In response, Hawaii has pieced together a statewide ban on plastic bags at store checkout counters — one county at a time, with Hawaii County leading the way with implementation in 2013. Then, in December, a ban on polystyrene foam food containers took effect in Maui County. Hawaii County followed suit this year.
The impulse to continue the push for sustainability-minded legislation is welcome. The latest effort, introduced by Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan, is a bill — initially drafted in broad strokes — to ban foam containers and other non-compostable items.
In its current draft, Bill 40 prohibits food vendors and other businesses from serving up and selling prepared food or beverages in expanded polystyrene foam containers. It also bans distribution of various disposable plastic bags not already covered by city ordinance, and “plastic service ware.”
As a means to easing transition to adopting greener alternatives, the city would grant hardship waivers. Such a strategy is sensible, given that some businesses would be hard-pressed to eliminate inventories of plastic utensils, stirring sticks, straws, drink bottles and takeout clamshell containers before the bill’s proposed start date, Jan. 1, 2021.
Some cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, now have straw ban laws in place. And this year, California became the first state to prohibit automatically giving out single-use plastic straws in full-service restaurants.
Honolulu should join that lineup as a means to promoting eco-friendly habits among consumers. Single-use plastic straws, after all, often rank among the 10 top items picked up at beach cleanups.
Another Bill 40 exemption would allow continued distribution of some pre-packaged products including: children’s juice boxes — packaged and sold with single-use plastic straws; soup or noodles sealed into a polystyrene container prior to receipt by the business; and single-use plastic condiments packaging.
The reasoning for exclusion is due to packaging handled outside of the “sphere of control” of a business in Honolulu.
However, the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and others opposed to the bill contend that such relief could result in providing mainland manufacturers with an unfair edge over locally produced goods, which would have to use enviro- friendly packaging that’s likely more expensive.
That’s a valid point, which deserves — and will get — more scrutiny. This month the Council’s Public Safety and Welfare Committee will again take up the bill, which it approved on Oct. 24, to further address concerns and consider amendments before sending the proposal to the full Council.
The Council should consider a gradual phase-in strategy, starting with straws and the ubiquitous foam containers.
Straws are an easy target for environmental change because, for the most part, they’re nonessential. And polystyrene foam, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “styrofoam,” is neither biodegradable nor compostable in any viable sense.
In May, Maine became the first state to ban polystrene from businesses. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2021, prohibits restaurants, caterers, coffee shops and grocery stores from using the to-go containers because they cannot be recycled in the state.
On Oahu, Honolulu’s waste collection delivers all polystyrene materials to HPOWER, where it’s burned to serve as a fuel source. The waste-to-energy plant produces up to 10% of Oahu’s electricity. However, when incinerated, polystyrene releases toxic ash and smoke.
While more debate is needed regarding Bill 40’s scope and timeline, in its final form, the proposal must serve as a push forward on a path to a more sustainable future on Oahu.
The measure’s aim is consistent with the city’s proposed Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan’s goals, which include reducing per capita waste generation by 25% by 2030, and lowering carbon emissions from the waste stream by substantially cutting carbon-based single-use plastics and polystyrene.
While there’s no doubt that Bill 40’s requirements will be challenging for the businesses community, it’s encouraging that in some circles, they’re already in place.
For example, the Hawaii Ocean Friendly Restaurant program, launched three years ago, includes scores of foam-free eateries that use only recyclable or compostable containers.
Pointing out that City Council discussions about plastics have been ongoing for at least a decade, as worries mount regarding related global warming issues, Manahan said, “We really need to be doing our part, especially if we’re going to be leaders in the climate crisis.” Bill 40 holds potential to serve as a meaningful step in that direction.