The Honolulu City Council has passed a historic revision of its plastic-bag ban ordinance that extends prohibitions on single-use items to include disposable eating utensils, plastic plates and bowls and other food-related things contributing to the plastic pollution epidemic worldwide.
And two critical developments suggest that Kauai County may finally be ready to move aggressively into increasing its restrictions on plastics — a step clearly in the better-late-than-never category. Although Kauai has already enacted a plastic-bag ban, it does not begin to address the larger problem of all manner of plastic food-related items.
The Honolulu action was taken last week and Mayor Kirk Caldwell there indicated he would quickly sign the new ordinance. The measure expands on prohibitions on plastic shopping bags that originally date to 1990. But a loophole remained for plastic bags used to transport “prepared foods, beverages or bakery goods.”
Last week’s measure struck that language, and — far more importantly — expanded the plastic prohibition to include all manner of “food service ware,” including knives and forks, straws, stirrers and spoons. It extends to plates and bowls and contains the explicit language that “no food vendor shall provide plastic service ware to customers.” It specifically bars use of all containers made of polystyrene.
It is no secret that a glance at, or walk on, any beach on Kauai leads to immediate discovery of overwhelming numbers of discarded plastic food-service items. In fact, a strong case could be made here that any future Kauai plastic ban should extend to single-use plastic water bottles and clamshell containers in which many foods are commonly sold now in supermarkets.
There is preliminary evidence that, on the plastic-water-bottle front, at least a small measure of symbolic progress is already being made on Kauai. My wife and I spent a short Thanksgiving staycation at the Grand Hyatt Resort in Poipu last week. In our room, we found two reusable plastic water bottles and instructions that they could be refilled at multiple locations on the property and that they were free of charge and could be taken home after our stay. There appeared to be noticeably fewer disposable plastic water bottles around the Hyatt pool that day.
The Honolulu legislation and the symbolic evidence of shifting concerns at the Hyatt underscore that Kauai must itself come to grips with banning many plastics that are now simply part of the backdrop of our lives. And two developments suggest that this evolution may be picking up momentum.
First is the focus on the issue by Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami. It is nearly universally known on island that Kawakami’s family owned the Big Save market chain for many years. The chain was sold to Times Supermarkets in 2011. Perhaps understandably, then, as a member of the County Council a couple of years ago, Kawakami made it known that he would oppose a ban on Styrofoam and other plastic food ware because, he said at the time, it would raise costs and impose supply challenges on small restaurant and food-store operators.
At the time, County Councilmember Mason Chock was working to develop strict language that would have established a Kauai ban similar to — if not stricter than — what Honolulu just enacted. But Kawakami’s then-opposition prompted Chock to largely abandon the effort in deference to pragmatic political reality.
Last week’s developments on Oahu, however, brought to light an apparent change in the mayor’s thinking, as well as to plans by Chock and County Councilmember Luke Evslin to bring the issue back to the local agenda.
In an email responding to questions I posed about the ramifications for Kauai of the ordinance just passed in Honolulu, Kawakami said: “Our county administration is also looking at options for limiting the use of polystyrene foam containers and single-use plastics here on Kauai.
“We look forward to learning how other counties have developed their similar ordinances and policies so that we can see what has worked for other islands and their economies, while serving to protect our previous environment and resources.”
I discussed the situation with Chock on Friday and it was his view that the mayor’s perspective has simply evolved and that Kauai may now be in a position to move ahead with a better public-policy approach to food-related plastic pollution.
Chock said two factors are involved. The first is the increasingly obvious reality that the island and the ocean that surrounds us is being quickly strangled by plastic. The situation is so grave that it is simply no longer possible for any political jurisdiction to refrain from taking decisive action.
A related issue, Chock said, is the ongoing difficulty of operating the Kekaha landfill, whose most recent problems in addition to quickly shrinking capacity relate to the fact that the private operator of the dump has abruptly canceled its contract. This has left the county to find a way to operate the facility on a day-to-day basis, in addition to finding a way to extend its lifespan and identify a future site for a new landfill.
Chock concedes that plastic food-container and utensil waste is not a substantial contributor to the volume of material that is overwhelming the landfill. Plastic food-service-item waste, he said, makes up substantially less than 1% of what gets placed there. By contrast, construction and demolition waste and all manner of organic food waste account for 10%, each, of the problem.
But the small part of the dump’s contents that is related to food-service plastic is critically important because of its ramifications for the continued health of the planet.
The county, Chock said, faces the unquestioned reality that the problems with the dump are immediate and critical and that even small ways to address the tragedy of plastic food-service-item pollution must be exploited to the maximum.
Chock said he and Evslin plan to revisit the plastic ban issue shortly after the holidays, in early 2020. That’s not too soon. Kauai needs decisive, comprehensive action. Without delay. Minimal added costs to food providers and stores are not unreasonable and can be absorbed easily. This is everyone’s problem, and everyone has to get involved in finding a solution.
Longtime news reporter and retired communications executive Allan Parachini lives and makes furniture in Kilauea.