Time right for stand against Styrofoam

It is simply not possible that any resident of Kauai or any visitor to our island doesn’t know that the land, the beaches and the ocean are awash in Styrofoam.

That’s from the take-out containers and coffee cups used this very morning and all manner of product packaging sold here. The debris is also from all over the world, floated here by the currents and washed ashore on what are unquestionably some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Wanting to be rid of the Styrofoam isn’t new. Legislation has been proposed here on Kauai and in Maui and Hawaii repeatedly over the years and gotten nowhere. The state Legislature has just run out the clock again — by not setting a hearing before the deadline for new measures to be heard passed on Friday — on a statewide ban on such packaging.

The normally well-intentioned Surfrider Foundation, which sponsors frequent beach cleanups that haul off tons of Styrofoam every year, has tried to keep a stiff upper lip about it. A few months ago, Surfrider declared Kilauea to be Kauai’s first foam-free town. Unfortunately, a quick glance around Kilauea establishes that this is fiction and the announcement was more of a photo-op than anything.

Surfrider does publish a list of restaurants that have allegedly declared themselves Styrofoam-free. Whether all of these places actually go without is unknowable.

Into this breach has come a somewhat unlikely collaboration. It involves County Councilmember Mason Chock and an Island School senior, Carolyn Price. Working in collaboration with Chock, Price produced a remarkably well-researched and written senior project on implementing an islandwide Styrofoam ban. Her work gives a person hope for our schools.

Chock, meanwhile, has drafted an ordinance for introduction in the next few weeks to push through a ban that would affect at least our island.

Price turned up a long list of jurisdictions that have already beaten us to banning Styrofoam containers. They include several cities in Massachusetts, Seattle and, later, Washington state and San Francisco. A predictable array of environmental organizations, starting with the Sierra Club, are on board.

So, you ask, if so many agree that Styrofoam packaging is horrible for the environment and ought to be outlawed, why haven’t we done it?

The answer, as with so many issues that seem simple on the surface, is there is more to it than you might think.

It’s a given that Kauai’s is largely a tourist economy. Visitors want to take their vacations in peace and let go of their Mainland or overseas ecological consciences for a few days. Food packaging and other Styrofoam products — like throwaway beverage containers that can be tossed at the airport on departure — reflect this preference. And, obviously, the island’s Styrofoam offenders are not all tourists. In fact, most of them are us — the permanent residents.

The retail food and hotel and restaurant industries are populated by a few large operators, and many very small locally owned businesses that struggle to stay afloat day-to-day. To them, even the slight difference in cost between compostable or biodegradable containers and Styrofoam may be a big deal. I priced these containers online and at Costco and Hopaco in Lihue and it’s clear that the cost disparity is real, but declining rapidly — Styrofoam 9-inch-square, 3-inch-deep takeout containers used to be about half the cost of paper (compostable) and sugarcane-based (biodegradable) ones. But that’s no longer true. In fact, a price comparison finds Styrofoam has only a one- or two-cent per unit cost advantage today.

Nevertheless, for small businesses, even that difference may be a hardship and if these businesses hurt, the island hurts. However, this reasoning ignores that if all food establishments have to use non-Styrofoam containers, the playing field is level again and the small cost increase can be passed along to customers. And let’s not forget that this is a very, very small price to pay for starting to rid Kauai of the Styrofoam blight — an unquestionable ecological scourge.

Chock is realistic, as are legislators who have struggled with the issue elsewhere. So his draft ordinance anticipates that the Styrofoam spigot can’t be turned off overnight. It will have to be phased in item by item, industry by industry and business size by business size over several years.

The bill that failed in the Legislature would have set up a timeline running all the way to 2020 before Hawaii would be fully Styrofoam-free. But remember, this is the approach taken in the run-up to the ban on plastic shopping bags, which Kauai enacted originally in 2009. Few can believe the bag ban — long fully in force — has not made the island a better place and started to reduce the horrific amount of plastic that gets into the ocean and our landfill.

It’s not clear what the business community will make of Chock’s bill. I asked the Chamber of Commerce about this and was told the organization has not yet learned the details of Chock’s proposal and has taken no position on it — yet. As a Chamber of Commerce member myself, it’s clear the organization should take a pro-environment leadership role here and support the Chock ordinance when it’s introduced. The chamber should at least not stand in the way.

How Chock’s colleagues on the council will react is not yet known. Since there are two new faces this year, it’s hard to predict.

I hope he gets somewhere with this in 2017. It would be a very good step for Kauai to take. If the County Council goes for it, I’ll be sending Chock a memo saying his next step should be a disposable plastic water bottle deposit high enough to attract scavengers to comb the underbrush for them, as many now do for aluminum beverage cans. Or maybe ban them entirely in favor of refillable containers. Over to you, Mason.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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