If there’s one thing I took away from PBS NewsHour’s special feature, “The Plastic Problem,” (other than, Here’s yet another way we humans have screwed ourselves and our planet) it’s that plastics are everywhere, from the tops of mountains to the depths of ocean trenches. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind: A plastic researcher is asked by a reporter if she still eats fish, even after her students found that every fish they’ve studied in Lake Ontario is contaminated by plastic.
Yes, the researcher responds. The effect of microplastics on the food web is unknown, she says. Plus, plastic is already in our drinking water and the air we breathe – so what difference does one more ingested particle make?
It’s shocking, but the takeaway isn’t that at this time in history – when a recent study says that the average person consumes 2,000 microplastic particles a week totalling the weight-equivalent of a credit card, and plastic in the ocean is on track to outweigh fish by 2050 – regulation of plastic is futile. The point is that if our goal was to prevent plastic pollution, we’re too late. Our rate of plastic creation has outpaced recycling, waste management solutions, a transition to alternatives, and an understanding of plastic’s environmental and biological impacts.
That isn’t an invitation to hopelessness, but a call for a bold and multi-faceted approach to manage waste, limit plastic use, and maximize clean-up, reuse, and recycle efforts.
For those of us living just south of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, aware of our proximity to the massive swirling broth of microplastics and uneager to discover the further ecological effects more plastic waste would have on the planet and life-as-we-know-it, the Honolulu City Council’s recent move to ban single-use plastic is one such effort that couldn’t come soon enough. Last week, councilmembers of the state’s most populated municipality voted 7-2 to restrict the use of a range of single-use plastics, including disposable service ware, polystyrene (styrofoam) containers, and plastic bags.
“This is my contribution to malama honua [care for the Earth],” said Honolulu Councilmember Joey Manahan, who introduced the measure, to Hawai‘i Public Radio. “It is no longer mine, but everyone’s because we are talking about the well-being of our ‘aina, our oceans, and our planet.”
Maui residents will note that Honolulu copied off our work. Plastic bag ban? We passed that over a decade ago and were the first in the state to do it! Polystyrene ban? Our plate lunches have been styrofoam free since January, baby! Yep, we swore off the hard stuff (Cup Noodles, everyone’s favorite styrofoam-wrapped vice) first.
But now, more than just being matched by the Honolulu City Council, the ante has been upped: Honolulu’s ban also includes single-use plastic service-ware like forks, knives, spoons, and straws. Despite some exemptions including packaging for raw meat and local manufacturers, Honolulu’s ban has already been hailed as one of the strictest in the country by a number of mainstream outlets hungry to get a story on the first wave of counties in the nation to wean itself off of single-use plastic.
It could have been us.
Currently in county legislative limbo is a bill from last year, introduced by then-Councilmember Elle Cochran, which aims at “restricting the use and sale of single-use plastic disposable foodware.” The proposed bill was resurrected by Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee Chair Councilmember Shane Sinenci in May of this year, where it was deferred and placed on the County Council’s to-do (or not to-do) list.
Highlights of that May EACP Committee meeting included the recognition that Maui doesn’t have the kind of island-wide commercial composting facilities needed to handle a surge of the compostable single-use products that would replace plastic utensils – a shortfall that Tamara Farnsworth of the County Department of Environmental Management said they are working on.
Also significant was a spreadsheet presented by Ashley O’Colmain of the Maui Huliau Foundation, which showed the cost per unit for replacement biodegradable products as of September 2018. Contrary to concerns that have been floated about the cost of replacing single-use plastics, O’Colmain’s data show that compostable service ware costs less than 10 cents per unit, compostable straws cost around 5 cents, and compostable plates around 10 to 20 cents per unit.
Twenty-five to 50 cents extra for a take-out meal I know won’t mangle some poor turtle? Not a bad deal.
But among the nuts-and-bolts talk about replacement costs and infrastructure needs was the question which seems to pester every discussion about daunting-yet-necessary change: Is now the right time?
Apparently not, at least to local legislators. With numerous considerations lingering, and urging from deputy corporation counsel Richelle Thomson to “bring back a more complete bill” that included more specific definitions of terms like “disposable foodware,” the matter was deferred and has yet to reappear in the EACP Committee. And don’t look to the mayor for leadership here – in an April “Ask the Mayor” column, Mayor Victorino essentially punted the issue over to the State Legislature. “Private companies have a choice on whether they want to use plastic straws,” he added.
Councilmember Shane Sinenci said Wednesday that he plans to bring the bill up again early in 2020, and will invite public input and feedback from businesses.
“We’re going to be going out into the community and getting public support and educating the public,” Sinenci said. The careful rollout will allow businesses and individuals to adapt to new rules and use up existing utensil inventories, he explained.
At the end of his May committee meeting, the councilmember from Hana concluded, “Let us remember some of the work that’s been put out there, like [Councilmember Mike] Molina, and all the efforts that has come before us. And let’s build upon that foundation that has been laid before us.”
Perhaps Honolulu’s leadership will be the foundation needed to take the next step in solving the plastic problem.