It’s finally here: “Foam Free Maui,” as the county has billed it. After years of beefing because it was argued that only styrofoam could hold – well – beef, the measure regulating the use of polystyrene has been implemented. As of New Year’s Eve, polystyrene food service containers are banned for “use, sale or provision” in Maui County after a 19-month phase-in period.
Like any change, it has not been without a few growing pains, notably a misunderstanding about whether or not Cup Noodles are allowed (they’re not), but overall, “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Tamara Farnsworth, division manager of the Environmental Protection and Sustainability Division of Maui County’s Department of Environmental Management. “We have had several people approach us and express their gratitude and enthusiasm. Most of the businesses are adjusting and complying with no major challenges.”
This is great news, because it wasn’t a totally easy road, as detailed by Rob Parsons in a November 2018 MauiTime story that was full of juicy details about a pro-styrofoam plate lunch campaign perpetuated by petroleum lobbyists, a split political task force, and a fair amount of disagreement. But more and more, people are understanding the reality of our environmental situation and are willing to do what it takes to address it. As Farnsworth noted, “In light of the urgent global problem of plastic pollution, these types of bans are significant action we can take at the local level to address the sources of excessive plastic waste.”
Business owners, and individual consumers of single-use products, still have to make choices about the best products to use, and should also keep an eye on what the future holds so they can be ahead of the curve for the changes ahead. “We can look forward to more legislation regulating single-use disposable plastic items in the near future, because there is no time to waste,” Farnsworth told me.
Along those lines, last year, then-Councilmember Elle Cochran drafted an ordinance called “Restricting the Use and Sale of Single-Use Disposable Plastic Foodware” to target plastic straws, utensils, stir sticks, cocktail picks, lids, and other products, which would require eliminating them and replacing them with better products; that is, compostable alternatives. Her term ran out before the bill could be considered, but it’s likely it will be addressed soon by the new Maui County Council.
In light of this, I spoke with one of Maui’s foremost experts on the “zero waste” movement to understand more about optimal single-use compostable products, the “greenwashing” products that pose as “eco-friendly” but in fact are not, and what the ideal future of real zero-waste looks like. Ashley O’Colmain is a local flower farmer and program director of Huliau Green Events. Since 2016, Maui Huliau Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes environmental literacy, has taken a “zero-waste” lead in the community by helping community festivals and events lower their waste production through its Green Events program.
Their efforts at the Made in Maui County Festival, the ‘Ulu Festival, Ho‘omau, and many other events have resulted in the diversion of seven tons of waste from the landfill. Five-and-a-half tons of organic waste from these local events have been turned into compost on Maui farms, including O’Colmain’s upcountry farm, Petaloom. Among other things, O’Colmain works to educate vendors at events on the correct products to buy, coaches business owners, and teaches classes on how to host these events.
When done right, we can turn single-use products back into soil to regenerate our land, or at least not further pollute it. But it’s important to know the right products to use, as well as what the law looks like now, and where we are most likely headed in the near future.
First: What’s allowed? What’s not allowed?
There’s been a very small amount of confusion about what’s allowed and not, with most businesses planning accordingly. The Cup Noodles hiccup means that some businesses are petitioning the county to be permitted to sell their back stock until their supply is cleared. The county has promoted the facts on eliminating the expanded polystyrene foam (EPS, “styrofoam”) via their Foam Free Maui campaign and their website. Businesses have moved to comply.
Besides Cup Noodles, the other banned EPS items are food service containers including plate-lunch hinged clamshells, cups, plates, bowls, and serving trays. According to the Foam Free Maui fact sheet, “If food or beverages can be served on or in it and its made of EPS, it’s not allowed.” The exception is raw meat, which can still be sold in foam trays; however, sashimi and poke are not excepted.
What are the best products to use?
The county’s informational website about the ban reads, “While it won’t solve all the problems we face with excessive plastic waste, this is a step in the right direction.” Those who want to take a next step can start by knowing the most environmentally friendly single-use product to use. “You want to look for ‘Certified Compostable,’” O’Colmain said. “BPI certified.” Maui Huliau Foundation put together a “Go Green” website with a helpful infographic on what logos to look for. In addition to these products, paper and palm leaf are compostable.
“It’s important to know that these products, the clear cups, the PLA, are only compostable in a commercial facility,” said O’Colmain, which Maui currently does not have.
“They do end up in the landfill. Things don’t break down quickly or readily in the landfill. But they are not going to leave the same harmful chemicals as plastic, and if they do end up in our environment, in our ocean or on the side of the road, they’re going to break down faster than plastic and not cause the same harm that plastic does. It’s not a perfect product, but it’s better than plastic.” They also won’t emit harmful greenhouse gasses when they do break down, unlike plastic or polystyrene.
Farnsworth echoed that sentiment: “There is currently no industrial composting facility capable of receiving food waste or compostable food serviceware on Maui, or even in Hawai‘i. The County of Maui Recycling Office funded a grant this year for a feasibility study and further research and development for such a facility in West Maui.” That effort, led by Gretchen Losano, is gaining traction: “We are pleased to be supporting efforts in the community for this type of facility in order to ‘close the recycling loop’ locally for food waste and compostable products,” said Farnsworth.
Farnsworth had another good argument for compostables, telling me that “It’s important to keep in mind that even though we do not yet have composting capabilities for ‘compostables’ on Maui, products made of non-plastic materials are still the best environmental option because they do not rely on fossil fuels as raw materials. Non-plastics will break down in the environment if not disposed of properly, unlike plastic items which take hundreds of years to decompose.”
So, though we do not yet have a commercial composting facility, we have to start somewhere, and certified compostable products will not be washing up on our beaches the same way plastic does.
These products can be found at stores all over the island: Sustainable Island Products, Maui Chemical, VIP, Island Grocery, Hopaco, Triple F, and Costco all carry single-use products that are certified compostable.
What to avoid: not banned (yet), just unethical
It’s important to know and be able to identify what is “Certified Compostable,” because there are a host of products posing as “eco-friendly” but are, quite simply, not. “Greenwashing” is an unethical business practice that takes advantage of consumers and business owners who want to use better products, but aren’t sure exactly what that is. These products are often marked or advertised with terms like “eco-friendly” or “biodegradable.” Much like the term “natural” in food and cosmetic products, these terms don’t signify anything.
“Biodegradable doesn’t even really mean anything. It could be plastic; it’s anything that ‘doesn’t last forever,’ which is anything,” said O’Colmain. “There are companies who are trying to trick you into buying things because they want to capitalize on you wanting to do the right thing.”
In light of the transition away from harmful products that contain polystyrene and plastic, “We’re really trying to inform people about ‘greenwashing,’” said O’Colmain.
There are a whole host of terms that corporations use to make consumers think they’re choosing good products: “Biodegradable,” “superdegradable,” “green,” “eco,” “earth friendly,” “made with recycled materials,” and “produced with plant starch” can all be corporate trickery with no certifiable standard. In many cases, they are just plastic in disguise.
Additionally, there are some products that look like paper or cardboard but sneak in plastic, like dixie cups, “paper” boats, and noodle boxes. All of these should be avoided.
Final steps: changing our ways and rethinking waste
The time is coming when using a single-use plastic fork will be like smoking at a playground or throwing trash out of a car window: Illegal, but beyond that, socially unacceptable because of the harm it causes us all.
“Ultimately, people really need to think about what they are throwing away, and where ‘away’ is,” O’Colmain told me. Though it truly does matter if you are using a better product, like certified compostable ware, the best option of all is to simply not use single-use products in your personal life, or even better, in your business. If you simply don’t make it an option, it won’t be an option, and people will have to use reusable products. Moku Roots, a restaurant in Lahaina, is leading the way in this model, providing lunch tins, mason jars, and bamboo sporks on a deposit or buy basis. No one really needs to use a new fork for every meal, or a plastic-lined insulated throw-away cup for every coffee break.
Single-use anything is a very modern concept born of a Western consumerist mentality that encourages people to buy (cups, forks, clothes, iPhones, etc) and quickly throw away so that they can buy again (and keep corporations in business). Right now, there are people who do bring their own utensils, bento boxes, water bottles, and tumblers with them when they go out, recognizing that ultimately, we must all change our ways and do away with single-use culture if we’re to salvage our island, and world. This movement must spread.
These changes do spell some inconvenience. But at a certain point, we have to reckon with what true “inconvenience” is with shorelines full of plastic, climate change, and a rising sea level on the horizon. Very soon, each person will have to take responsibility for their own containers and utensils and make it a point to carry chopsticks and a coffee cup if that’s what they will need that day. Infrastructure will have to keep up with this behavior change, and we’ll need sinks and soap for sanitation.
If we don’t collectively take responsibility and make these changes, it won’t be pretty. If we use a new plastic fork for each meal, and drink from an 8-oz plastic water bottle each time we’re thirsty, then faded plastic will continue to culminate on our once-breathtaking beaches like sad confetti. Waves at our favorite surf breaks will crest full of junky plastic that was used once and thrown out forever. No one values convenience more than clean beaches or a healthy world.
“As a good friend said to me recently, ‘This is go time for the environment,’” said Farnsworth. “We will continue striving to protect ecosystems, other species, and, ultimately, ourselves and future generations.”
Cover design by Darris Hurst