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Could Hawai?i Be the First State to Ban Polystyrene Food Containers?

Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

First it was Maui County then Hawai?i County, and now the State is considering a ban on polystyrene food containers. Similar bans have been passed in cities and counties across the country, but this could make Hawai?i the first state to do so. HPR Reporter Ku?uwehi Hiraishi has this story.

Hawai?i is closer than ever to swapping out those polystyrene foam containers for biodegradeable alternatives made of things like bamboo, corn or sugar cane.

“Every now and again Hawai?i just steps up,” says Stuart Coleman, Hawai?i manager for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting our oceans.

The non-profit has been one of the most vocal proponents of Senate Bill 2498 – a proposal to prohibit the sale of polystyrene foam containers in the state – legislation introduced by O?ahu Senator Stanley Chang.

“As you know, polystyrene cannot be recycled. It’s made from fossil fuels,” says Sen. Chang, “And once it gets out into the environment through littering or otherwise. It breaks apart into small pieces, which is then eaten by wildlife, i.e. birds, fish, and so on.”

Polystyrene is also commonly known by the tradename styrofoam.

“Styrofoam is one of the most littered items and littered forms of plastic and it’s also the least recycled form of plastic,” says Coleman.

“We need to talk about more campaigns, more efforts, and more funding to control our trash so it doesn’t become litter. Not forcing a hardship on a restaurant operator and not solving any problems cause you’re not going to do away with the litter problem,” says local restaurant owner Gregg Fraser.

Fraser is the Executive Director of the Hawai’i Restaurant Association. The association represents more than 3,500 food establishments across the island chain.

“It’s going to force restaurant operators to spend three or four times more on the same type of container,” says Fraser, “What do we do? I have to go and either (A) raise prices on my menu or (B) lay some people off because I can’t afford.”

Fraser says restaurant owners with the resources to make the switch are already doing so.

“I take steps at my restaurant on Kaua?i cause I’m on the North Shore of Kaua?i so I want to be as ocean-friendly as possible,” says Fraser, “But guess what? That’s a choice I make. That’s a choice that I make to spend more on that. Nobody is forcing me to use certain products.”

Fraser says this added cost could be the tipping point for some Hawai?i food establishments – on top of recent minimum wage hikes and rising food prices. Coleman, however, believes the transition can be a smooth one for businesses.

“The reason we were able to pass the bans on Maui and the Big Island I would argue is that now we have businesses testifying and saying it was not a problem,” says Coleman, “It’s not like it’s going to go away overnight. It’s a phase out period over a couple of years, people have plenty of time.”

Senator Chang says in the last five years local governments in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and more have passed similiar measures.

“Hawai?i has long been a pioneer of environmental policies, progressive social policies,” says Sen. Chang “So we can be proud to be pioneers but we can also have the confidence to know that this has been tested, that it’s worked in other jurisdictions and it will probably work here too.”

The measure passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing with the House Finance Committee. If passed, the ban would take effect January 1, 2019.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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