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Hawai'i County Ban on Polystyrene Takes Effect

National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons

For Hawai’i County residents, one thing about plate lunch is changing today: the plate. A ban on polystyrene -- commonly known as Styrofoam -- takes effect on the Big Island. The law, passed in 2017, limits the use of polystyrene by food purveyors.

This means that Styrofoam takeout containers and other products such as plates and cups can no longer be issued by restaurants and food sellers around the Big Island.

However, even as the ban takes effect, the Hawai’i County Council is considering a measure to loosen the restrictions.

Bill 74, a proposed amendment to the ban, would allow for more alternatives to polystyrene. Instead of requiring plastics to be recyclable under the county’s standards, the law would only require plastics to be recyclable in general. The effect would be broaden the kinds of materials food purveyors could use.

While supporting Bill 74, some members of the food service industry, including Richard Kobayashi of Café 100, say they are struggling to find safe and cost-effective alternatives to polystyrene.

“In this case, we are willing to adapt and change,” said Kobayashi. “We are in support of changing from Styrofoam, but our concern is finding a suitable alternative that is also cost-effective for our operation.”  

Meanwhile, the environmental challenge in finding alternatives to Styrofoam is that many are plastics.

Bill Kucharski, director of the Department of Environmental Management in Hawai’i County, said while the ban on polystyrene for food purveyors is a good first step, overusing plastics is still an issue.

“The big debate is: What do we do next? What do we do with these plastic takeout containers or the plastics that are around our county,” said Kucharski. “We don’t deal with them very well. What we’re looking at now is how can we better manage the waste we generate.”

Bill 74 is up for a second reading before the full County Council on July 9. The bill was approved early last month by the council's Committee on Agriculture, Water, Energy, and Environmental Management.

The Big Island is the second county in the state to adopt a polystyrene ban. Maui County first banned Styrofoam products for the food service industry in December 2018.

Maui County’s implementation of the polystyrene ban has been smooth sailing, thanks to cooperation from restaurateurs, said Cecilia Powell, recycling specialist for Maui’s Environmental Management Department.

“When we contacted the distributors, they were already working with their clients and contributors on a transition plan out of polystyrene,” Powell said.

Powell also says Maui County has been encouraging residents to bring their own reusable utensils and straws when they go out to eat to reduce the use of plastics.

Other initiatives through the county’s recycling program encourage reusable plastics. At the University of Hawaii Maui campus, students are able to take out meals in plastic containers. When the containers are returned to UH food services, they are washed and used again.

“We focus on reusing and reducing your waste as much as possible,” Powell said.

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