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Oahu restaurants get 90-day delay of ban on plastic utensils

Restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and other businesses that serve prepared food on Oahu are getting an extra three months to use up their plastic or other fossil fuel-based forks, spoons, knives and other utensils.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell agreed Thursday to a request to extend by 90 days the “education period” for Oahu food vendors who were supposed to stop using plastic utensils Jan. 1. That means they now technically have until March 31 to use up their existing stock, city officials said.

The Hawaii Restaurant Association and Hawaii Food Industry Association have been leading a push for Caldwell to agree to an extension, insisting that the closures and slowdown in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have upended their plans to use up their wares by the end of this year.

Under the latest phase of Honolulu’s Disposable Food Ware Ordinance, food vendors were required by Jan. 1 to only provide fossil fuel- free utensils made of bioplastic, paper or other renewable materials instead of petroleum plastic utensils, and curtail the use of petroleum plastic takeout bags.

Another provision that’s set to kick in says any utensils that are still allowed to be distributed under the new law can be handed out only upon customer request, although city officials said that vendors are allowed to ask the customer. Self-service stations for utensils are also still allowed.

Businesses found to be in violation could be fined up to $1,000.

“The restaurant industry is one of our largest industries here in urban Honolulu,” Caldwell said. “It employed, prior to the pandemic, 55,000 people generating billions of dollars in revenue. and they’re really hurting. Many of them hang on by their fingernails hoping for that brighter summer that is coming, but they need to get to that summer. And so every additional cost that we place on them makes it harder for them to live into that brighter summer.”

Restaurateur Greg Maples, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said local restaurant owners and operators are not opposed to sustainability initiatives.

“But the timing of this bill has added an additional hurdle and potential loss of income for restaurant owners and operators during a time when every dollar counts more than ever before,” Maples said in a news release.

The additional three months is also expected to give the Department of Environmental Services time to establish administrative rules for the new ordinance.

The ordinance was approved by the Council in December 2019 and is considered the most restrictive anti-plastic law among the state’s four counties.

The department, which is tasked with enforcing the law, announced it will hold a public hearing Jan. 15 so the public can weigh in on a draft of the proposed rules.

Under a later phase of the plan that takes effect Jan. 1, 2022, foam or other plastic plates, bowls and other foodware will be banned from distribution.

Marti Townsend, director of Sierra Club Hawaii, said the additional grace period “makes sense,” but she took the opportunity to remind the public about the significance of the ordinance.

“By not distributing single-use plastics, local businesses will help protect public health and the planet,” Townsend said in a statement. “Left unchecked, plastic waste will soon result in more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.”

For businesses to comply with the ordinance is “easy, cost-effective and the best solution to reduce plastic pollution on O‘ahu,” she said. “Local businesses will save thousands of dollars a year in plastic take-out supplies and significantly reduce plastic waste by simply not distributing unwanted plastic utensils and other single-use take-out items.”

For more information on the new law, go to bit.ly/3oH2QtE.

Questions about the Disposable Food Ware Ordinance and the education period can be directed to Environmental Services at 768-3200, ext. 6, or business recycle@honolulu.gov.

A recording of the Nov. 30 hearing is available at bit.ly/344yut1.

The updated administrative rules will be available on Environmental Services’ website (opala.org) once finalized.

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