Creating Responsible Rubbish

Styrofoam ban to come to Hawai`i island in 2019

Staff Writer Rosannah Gosser

Photographer Elizabeth Lough

Hawaiian cuisine would be incomplete without that perfect combination of creamy mac salad and sticky, white rice to complement shoyu chicken, kalua pork, or garlic shrimp. From Hawaiian lau lau to Korean kalbi, Japanese teriyaki to American Spam, the classic mixed plate is a quintessential blend of the diversity that makes these islands one of a kind. Everyone knows how mouthwatering it is to open up that squeaky, shiny container to behold your plate lunch, but do you ever think about what happens to the container after you’ve enjoyed your meal?

Last month, the Hawai`i County Council voted to pass a bill that will ban food vendors and restaurants from using expanded polystyrene foam containers starting from July 2019. Commonly called Styrofoam®, a trade name for foam housing insulation, polystyrene foam is an air-pumped plastic known for its efficient insulation properties. Found in an array of products and packaging, polystyrene foam is regularly used for food containers, such as those of plate lunches, because it retains heat and its hydrophobic qualities prevent leaks.

Plate lunch in a styrafoam container

Almost 95% air, polystyrene foam presents cumbersome issues as a waste material: it takes up large portions of landfills, easily escapes into the environment, can take centuries to decompose, and is difficult to recycle. One of the most serious concerns about polystyrene foam is the danger it poses to wildlife. It is made up of lightweight, low-density pellets that get out into the environment and eventually end up in the ocean, where they float on the surface and are mistaken by marine life and seabirds for food.

Not only is polystyrene foam itself harmful to ingest, but pellets tend to absorb other contaminants, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals, making them even more toxic to wildlife.

“When organisms eat polystyrene pellets, they’re getting this highly concentrated dose of those other pollutants as well,” says Dr. Steven Colbert of UH Hilo’s Marine Science Department. “It’s not just the plastic that’s bad, it’s also the stuff that sticks to the plastic that makes it even more harmful,” Colbert explains. These contaminants are then passed on through the food web, and can be present in the seafood we eat.

In a waste characterization study done by the city and county of Honolulu in 2006, analysis of our trash showed that Hawai`i goes through approximately 44,500 to 65,965 pounds of polystyrene every day, making us the U.S. state with the highest per capita consumption of the material. Being the only state that is completely surrounded by ocean, it’s especially important in Hawai`i that we consume and dispose of our rubbish responsibly.

The extended implementation of the bill, effective July 2019, will allow food vendors and restaurants to deplete their stocks and prepare to use alternative containers. When asked their opinion of the ban, several local restaurants preferred not to comment and claimed that their stance will ultimately reflect that of their customers.

Polystyrene foam containers are cheaper, and are therefore generally chosen over more expensive materials, as Director of Hawai`i County’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) William Kurcharski explains. Hopefully this fact will change. “A stronger demand is expected to reduce the costs of such materials as the demand increases … In short, the market will determine the costs and competition will lower the prices,” Kucharski says. The DEM has been a major factor in helping the Hawai`i County Council plan for the implementation of the bill, including enforcement requirements and an education program for the county beginning in January 2019.

Critics of the bill have drawn attention to the fact that it singles out food vendors’ and restaurants’ use of polystyrene foam containers, while not imposing the ban on big box companies’ sale of products that incorporate the material. In other words, while local food vendors and restaurants will be given a fine of up to $600 if caught using polystyrene foam containers, stores like Walmart and Target can go on selling the same containers, as well as all other forms of polystyrene, without penalty.

Aaron Chung, one of Hilo’s two County Council members who voted against the bill, explains his opposition. “Any time that a group of people can do something that another group cannot, it’s inherently unfair. I understand that for the environment, a little bit is better than nothing, but I believe in standing for honesty, fairness, and values.” Chung states that if a total, island-wide ban was proposed for the bill, he would be in full support of it. However, this kind of implementation is likely impractical because of what’s called the “Commerce Clause” in the U.S. Constitution, which limits the ability of states to interfere with national economic regulations.

Pushing through localized, state-level legislation is the first step in making any progress towards sustainable development in a country whose administration has largely turned its back on the environment. But will a ban that specifically targets our local economy, rather than powerful corporate forces, make enough of an impact?

When people visit Hawai`i, they are hopefully not only inspired by the breathtaking beauty of the islands, but also of lifestyles that respect and cherish the `āina. The crowds of tourists that visit each year take the ideas they’re exposed to here back home with them, putting Hawai`i in an ideal position to influence the rest of the country, and the world, on the importance of caring for the environment through what we consume. And soon enough, that example will also be set through how we package our food.

Fear not for your favorite island fare, nothing will change about your plate lunch except for the container that holds it, because it’s not about the packaging, but the aloha of the service behind it and the satisfaction of enjoying “ono grindz” with people you love in a remarkably beautiful place that really matters. And by cutting down on our pollution, we’ll be working to preserve that beauty even more.