Column: Plastics ban proposals a disaster for Oahu food companies
On Wednesday, the City Council will choose between two horrendous versions of Bill 40, the proposed ban on disposable polystyrene (PS) foam and plastics.
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On Wednesday, the City Council will choose between two horrendous versions of Bill 40, the proposed ban on disposable polystyrene (PS) foam and plastics. Both would likely devastate Oahu’s food supply.
This debacle should come as no surprise since the Council has hastily and continually bungled the drafting of Bill 40, creating the prospect of massive unintended consequences along the way. Throughout, they’ve failed to recognize or avoid the adverse effects the bill would have on nearly all food products made locally.
Recently, over 200 people and scores of Oahu companies had to stage a public rally to prevent a massive shutdown of local businesses and draw attention to the fact that Spam musubi, POG and other cherished local foods would have been completely banned under earlier proposed language.
Now the City Council is offering two proposals of the bill for final passage: one by Tommy Waters, another by Ron Menor. Both versions feature worthless exemptions to the ban that will eliminate many local foods.
Waters’ proposal is harmful because all prepared foods in plastic or foam are banned except for “prepackaged” products. However, the definition is so broad and confusing it can’t be upheld.
It states that exempted food must be packaged prior to being provided for sale. The problem is that all prepared food, including takeout, is packaged before sale since a transaction cannot be legally consummated until a customer receives the item they purchased. “Provided” has no legal standard and therefore becomes a confusing benchmark: must items be packaged before a TV ad is aired or a newspaper circular is printed or a sign posted?
This flaw renders the exemption ineffective or exposes it to legal challenge — either way, foods such as tofu, kim chi and noodles requiring plastic or foam would be eliminated.
Menor’s version, meanwhile, lists a slew of individual exemptions to the ban, including poi, tofu, catering, “grab and go” and “shelf stable” products.
However, these carve-outs are absolutely meaningless. That’s because this draft seems to prohibit all businesses on Oahu except food vendors from selling PS foam or plastic disposable food containers and utensils.
That means everyone selling food — from producers and wholesalers to stores and restaurants — may not be able to procure packaging on the island even with exemptions. Without trays for raw meat, salad containers, or tubs for tofu made from plastic or PS foam on Oahu, food vendors would be left to buy these items directly from overseas at great expense and limited quantities.
Since Bill 40 primarily applies to local products, it falls hardest on the businesses that produce them and consumers who treasure the specialty foods that make Hawaii cuisine so unique.
Local businesses aren’t ignoring environmental concerns related to foam and plastic packaging. It’s just that options are limited and continuing efforts by the city to prohibit their use have been an utter failure.
The Council doesn’t understand Oahu’s complex food supply system and is therefore incapable of developing thoughtful policy to reduce plastic and foam pollution while mitigating risks.
The city must think twice before going straight to a ban – there’s too much at stake if they get it wrong. If the Council doesn’t put an end to this misguided effort, many of our beloved local foods will be lost, the businesses that produce them will close, and thousands of workers will be left without jobs.
The Council should table Bill 40 and instead start with more-reasonable options like surcharges or incentive programs that won’t cause devastating harm. Let’s work together on policies that balance environmental concerns with economic needs, island values and our culinary heritage.