Back in May 2017, a small, dedicated group witnessed a momentous event in Maui County Council chambers: A unanimous vote to restrict the use of polystyrene foam food service wares. The ordinance was years in the making, and marks the second time Maui would take the lead in regulating the proliferation of a single-item plastic commodity. Back in 2010, Maui was the first county in Hawai‘i to legislate a ban on plastic bags, an initiative that led to the passage of similar bills throughout the rest of the state.
Now, after a 19-month phase-in period, the county’s Division of Environmental Protection & Sustainability is embarking on a Foam Free Maui County campaign to educate restaurateurs, retailers, and the general public on the transition from throwaway polystyrene products to reusable or compostable alternatives.
“We can live without it,” proclaims the county informational webpage. A frequently-asked-questions section answers when the bill takes effect (Dec. 31, 2018), what kind of containers are banned or excluded, what the penalties are for non-compliance, and more. Links indicate that banning polystyrene protects wildlife, reduces plastic waste, and helps combat climate change. Photos illustrate a sea turtle and seabirds ingesting polystyrene and its calabash cousin, Styrofoam.
Much of what is compiled online is the work of recycling specialist Cecile Powell, collaborating with EP&S manager Tamara Farnsworth. They also contracted the services of Geoff Moore and Silver Moon Graphics for the attractive informational poster, fact sheet, and bumper stickers.
“Part of our educational campaign involved calling affected businesses and distributors. It is encouraging to learn how many businesses are already on board with the ban and have already began using alternative products,” Farnsworth said happily. “There were zero times where I needed to explain why the ban is good for our environment. People already know.”
“We’ve had super positive feedback,” she added. “We are seeing lots of Foam Free bumper stickers, even on cars and trucks we don’t recognize.”
“Sheik’s is on board,” noted Powell, referring to the iconic Kahului diner on South Wakea Avenue. “Takamiya Market found alternatives for their trays and bentos,” she said about the Wailuku grocery known as the “Little giant of Happy Valley.”
In fact, many purveyors of food service items provided non-polystyrene alternatives even before the bill passed, often at costs within pennies or equivalent to foam products.
“We do not anticipate any significant adverse affect on businesses due to the implementation of this legislation,” Farnsworth stated. “Taking care of our waste and the ‘aina is everyone’s kuleana. Legislation like this helps to enhance our ability to do better for the environment.”
As 2018 winds to a conclusion, it’s now time for all purveyors, retailers and food servers to ditch the foam and switch to reusable or compostable substitutes. But, it’s also important to recall just how we got to this point.
HOW WE GOT HERE
On the heels of the bill passed by Maui County Council in August 2008 to restrict plastic bag usage, one council member set his sight on the next goal. In autumn of 2009, then-councilmember (now Mayor-elect) Mike Victorino introduced a draft bill to regulate the use and sale of polystyrene food wares. His measure did not, however, maintain the momentum of the plastic bag ban, which had yet to be signed into law. (Mayor Charmaine Tavares did so a year later, in August 2010. The implementation of the law took effect on Jan. 11, 2011).
Undaunted, Victorino re-introduced the measure in 2014, and it was referred to Elle Cochran’s Infrastructure and Environmental Protection Committee. At the initial IEM meeting to consider the bill in July 2014, Victorino volunteered to convene a task force of stakeholders to conduct an in-depth review of the bill’s purpose, scope, impacts, and exemptions.
The task force was comprised of business advocates, county officials, environmental advocates, food providers, and both manufacturers and distributors of disposable food service wares. It would meet four times in August and September 2014, ultimately issuing a report to the IEM Committee in November.
The task force split right down the middle into two groups: those supporting and those rejecting restriction of polystyrene foam products.
“The task force does not have a consensus on whether enacting the bill is a good strategy for mitigating the impacts of plastic litter,” the report states. It goes on to list the assertions of both those opposed to, and in support of the bill.
The business factions opposed to the bill argued that polystyrene is approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, the measure could impose financial hardships on businesses, passage would merely create another kind of litter (since compostable containers are not currently allowed at composting facilities), and that a law is not needed since industry trends showed food-service providers were already transition to alternatives. The six Maui business representatives on the task force provided a list of recommendations.
Six other, environmental, task force members issued their own set of recommendations. They urged following the lead of about 100 other municipalities in addressing disposable food service wares, clarified which products would be covered, and suggested providing time for food providers and retailers to switch. They refuted that costs of alternatives were a burden, stated that eliminating polystyrene would improve our environment and quality of life, and cited supporting language in the Maui Island Plan.
“We don’t aim just to ban things, but it can’t be just voluntary,” offered task force member Lauren Blickley, then-conservation coordinator with Pacific Whale Foundation. “Our throwaway society has caught up with us, which is why we need bans on single-use plastics.”
The task force report did not, however, elaborate on the arrival of an out-of state participant who appeared unexpectedly at the third meeting.
That particular meeting was convened at Zippy’s restaurant, for the purpose of testing the performance of alternative products on favorites like chicken katsu with gravy and 180-degree hot saimin. The tall, bespectacled man not seen at the first two meetings identified himself as Tom Knox of California, a paid lobbyist of the American Chemistry Council, the advocacy arm of the plastics industry.
Knox stepped to the chalkboard when the third meeting re-convened in a classroom at Iao Intermediate School and began obfuscating the real issues at hand. It’s really only 20 or so towns in California that have done bans, he stated (it is more than 70). No one really composts anymore, he claimed (compost of food waste and compostable food service items is a growing trend, especially on the West Coast). The cost of substitute products is three to five times that of polystyrene, he opined (a statement repeated by the business faction of the task force, even though alternatives are available at equivalent or negligible cost).
“It was eye-opening to understand what and who we are up against when we propose these restrictive measures,” said Gretchen Losano, then a representative of World Centric compostable products and a board member of Styrophobia. “It’s good to remind people that it is the weight of the entire petro-chemical industry that opposes these sorts of bills. They spread so much misinformation in order to perpetuate their use of plastics.”
Despite the industry’s lobbying, “this was a great victory of the ‘little’ person over corporate interference,” remarked Marge Bonar, task force member and the impetus in getting the County Council to take on the plastic bag issue years earlier. “We are among the growing number of places which have recognized that the future has been jeopardized by our irresponsible devotion to the cheap, convenient, and disposable. I am thankful to the County Council for their unanimous approval.”
That approval, however, would take another two-and-a-half years. The inconclusive task force report sparked new rounds of debate over issues raised, but not agreed-upon. Throughout 2015-2016, Councilmember Cochran championed the effort to move the bill forward. It went through at least three substantial revisions, to broaden the purpose of the bill to include potential threats to human health, and to tighten up definitions and language so it would be legally sound.
Along the way the draft ordinance found more supporters, notably several students who produced videos through their affiliation with Maui Huliau Foundation. One was a hilarious skit that included discovery of a “Don’t Take Our Plate Lunch” flyer that had cropped up across the islands… a propaganda effort funded by the American Chemistry Council.
A dream sequence in the video shows a plastics industry boardroom discussion of a growing “problem in Hawai‘i,” with a member being abruptly fired for suggesting they consider providing compostable containers to address a growing market. Even with the comedic approach, it was clear the students had learned the facts of why polystyrene products needed to be curtailed.
In November 2015, the IEM Committee finally sent the draft bill on to full council, recommending passage. At its Dec. 16, 2016 meeting, the Maui County Council offered new amendments to the bill, but passed it on first reading. They stipulated, however, that a special meeting would be convened before second reading, with a panel of scientists and experts to address unresolved issues.
In May 2017, University of California Santa Barbara professors Dr. Hillary Young and Dr. Douglas McCauley shared info from studies of expanded polystyrene, seabirds, and ocean health. Marine biologists and marine debris specialists Cheryl King of Maui and Megan Lamson of Hawai‘i County presented data on beach cleanups and microplastics. Two other presenters shared studies on potential human health risks of styrene, a component of polystyrene classified as a suspected carcinogen (though Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura later moved to delete that phrase from the actual bill).
A week later, after more testimony, tinkering, and debate, the council unanimously agreed to pass the bill, and set a phase-in date of Nov. 18, 2018.
“While the legislative process was long and arduous, in hindsight I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned from experts in the field, exactly how critical this environmental protection will be for our ‘aina, and how little an impact it will be for local businesses,” said Councilmember Elle Cochran, adding, “I remain ever-grateful to the community stakeholders that came to the frontlines to help me educate the members and rebut the propaganda and rhetoric being spread aggressively by lobbyists representing corporate interests. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
With the growing understanding of impacts and drawbacks of single-use plastics, many municipalities are setting their sights upon new goals. Last July, Manhattan Beach, California became the first U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils. Seattle passed a similar ordinance a month later. The Manhattan Beach City Council has taken additional steps, outlawing polystyrene foam egg cartons and foam packing peanuts.
In October, the European Union lawmakers moved to ban 10 single-use plastic products with readily available alternatives, to take effect by 2021.
Can Maui continue to be a leader in addressing greater education and restrictions of these fossil fuel-based, non-recyclable products, increasingly found during roadside and beach cleanups? “To have everyone using reusable dishes, washable eating utensils, and only truly compostable take out products is my dream,” said Bonar.
To that vision, Councilmember Cochran has drafted a new ordinance, “Restricting the Use and Sale of Single-Use Disposable Plastic Foodware.” The measure sets its sights on plastic straws, utensils, stir sticks, cocktail picks, lids, and other products, while aiming to provide compostable alternatives. Her council term is set to expire before the bill could come forward for consideration, but the measure may be picked up by incoming councilmembers in January 2019.
Campbell Farrell is executive director of Love the Sea, working to spread awareness of the detrimental effects of plastic in our world, especially the ocean environment. Recently in New Zealand supporting the Eat Less Plastic voyage’s arrival, he spoke with the Minister of Climate Change, James Shaw.
“Minister Shaw encouraged very much to keep raising awareness and bring credible data to government officials so they could more effectively lobby for change,” Farrell said. “He loved that we are helping to unite Pacific Island nations people to stand together for a plastic free environment.”
Americans use an estimated 50-billion plastic water bottles annually, with the vast majority – more than 70 percent – discarded rather than recycled. And it doesn’t help that the bottle and cap are made from two different types of plastic, complicating the ability to recycle them. Local recyclers have faced challenges anew over the past year, with more stringent guidelines for contamination and drops in commodity prices. However, they are still collecting #1 and #2 plastics (polyethylene/PET and high-density polyethylene/HDPE).
San Francisco outlawed sale of plastic water bottles 21 ounces or less back in 2014. “We never went to the store when we were kids and walked out with a case of bottled water,” Losano recalled. “We’ve got to get back to that place where we take responsibility for what we purchase and consume.”
“The polystyrene ban breaks the ice for us to commit to sustainability on a much broader scale,” she stated.
Farnsworth said her Environmental Protection & Sustainability division will be launching a “BYO!” campaign in 2019, once the Foam Free initiative is fully in place. “Stay tuned for details,” she said with a smile.
Earlier this year, Losano applied for a county recycling grant to establish a West Maui regional compost operation capable of processing food scraps and compostable food service wares into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. It would mark a first in Maui County.
As part of the grant, she completed Maui Economic Opportunity’s “Core Four,” classes to write a successful business plan. She has been contacting hotels, restaurants, groceries, schools, and landscapers to understand the resource stream availability. She and her partner are continuing the search for a suitable site. With the closest commercial compost sites in Central Maui, a location in West Maui is a dire need.
“I promised the council there would be a place to compost alternative food service items, and we are going to do it,” Losano proclaimed. “We are committed to overcoming the permitting hurdles.”
Thus, Maui’s polystyrene ban may have long-ranging impacts beyond just the disappearance of foam cups, plates, and bentos. Indeed, Hawai‘i County passed their own ordinance just months after Maui led the way, to be implemented in July 2019. Last year’s state legislature came close to passing SB 2498 to limit EPS foam products. Despite more than 600 pieces of supporting testimony, it languished after being referred to Finance Committee, and didn’t receive a final hearing.
Whether 2019 will be the year the measure passes at the state level remains to be seen. But the launching of the Foam Free Maui County campaign will surely give rise to additional forward-thinking measures to reduce litter and protect our environment.
And polystyrene? Perhaps it will be soon forgotten, except as an example of how we are able to learn from our own unsustainable societal missteps.
As the Foam Free website reminds us, “We can live without it.”
Learn more about the Polystyrene Food Service Containers Ordinance at Mauicounty.gov/2282/Foam-Free-Maui-County
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Cover image by Lindsey Kramer
Seabird image courtesy County of Maui
Image of styrofoam products on shelf by Rob Parsons