LIHU‘E — The County Council and the administration of Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami will move this week to ban sale and use of polystyrene foam food containers — often known informally as Styrofoam — making Kaua‘i the last county in the Hawai‘i to do so.
The ban applies to a wide array of products ranging from foam coffee cups to plates, bowls, so-called clamshell containers and other food-service goods.
Councilmembers Mason Chock and KipuKai Kuali‘i plan to introduce the ban at Wednesday’s council meeting. Their measure, Bill 2775, would outlaw use of most plastic foam food containers with exceptions for foods prepared off-island and shipped in such containers from their points of origin. Containers used to package raw or butchered meats, poultry, fish and eggs would also be exempted, along with situations where food producers have no alternative to the plastic foam packaging.
Violators would face progressive fines, starting at $100 for a first offense to as much as $600 if the containers are used at an event attended by more than 600 people.
It was not clear, however, if the Chock-Kuali‘i ordinance would move smoothly through the council, where proponents anticipate potential opposition from Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro and Councilmembers Arthur Brun and Ross Kagawa. None of the three councilmembers responded to email queries from The Garden Island on how they plan to vote.
It is widely assumed that there is a four-vote support base including Chock, Kuali‘i and Councilmembers Luke Evslin and Felicia Cowden.
On Tuesday, Kawakami is expected to announce separately an administrative ban on plastic food service containers and utensils in all county facilities and at county functions. In an interview, Kawakami said the policy will go fully into effect in a year, thus allowing county events planned for the following year to use plastic containers and utensils since supplies may already have been ordered.
The dual actions would make Kaua‘i County the last jurisdiction in the state to act against the controversial plastic containers and utensils, which are widely blamed for contributing to ocean and water pollution. Such plastic debris can remain in soils, on beaches, in oceans and waterways indefinitely, and are widely blamed for the growing menace of uncontrolled plastic pollution worldwide.
Maui County enacted its ban in 2018, with Hawai‘i County and the City &County of Honolulu following in 2019. The Honolulu ban is the most comprehensive in the state, since it makes illegal the sale or use of both plastic foam food containers and plastic utensils.
Chock said the ordinance he and Kuali‘i are sponsoring and the mayor’s policy change are moving forward “in tandem.” He said the two actions together pave the way for further refinement in county solid-waste policies, which could include requirements for much more composting of food waste and new limitations on construction and demolition waste being buried in the already-overburdened county landfill.
Action against plastic containers and a greater focus on limiting food waste dumped in landfills and controlling construction and demolition waste are elements of broader strategies increasingly employed across the country.
“Polystyrene foam is neither degradable nor compostable, and disposal of such waste poses a significant risk to the environment and life forms throughout the food chain,” the proposed ordinance asserts. “Due to its lightweight nature and ability to break down into smaller fragments, polystyrene foam has significant negative impacts on the environment and contributes to the potential death of marine animals and avian populations through ingestion.”
“When we sat down and looked through diversion as a whole, there were different areas we wanted to address, the polystyrene ban being a small first step that could open the door to other kinds of bans, such as food waste,” Chock said.
Kawakami said Kaua‘i County’s small size has severely limited its ability to mandate use of certain materials and had also been an obstacle to an earlier ban or limit on plastic and foam food-service items.
“Departments will be prohibited from purchasing these kinds of disposable plastic,” Kawakami said. “This is a policy shift for our county facilities and those who want to use county facilities.” He emphasized, however, that the administration’s directive is intended to influence county department behavior and that individuals who may bring food onto county property to eat themselves will not be subject to enforcement action.
The new policy represented a shift of sorts from a position Kawakami took when he was a councilmember in 2017. Then, he said that such a ban on Kauai would create hardships for small food-service businesses, ranging from markets to restaurants. He said at the time he was sensitive to such effects in part because his own family — which used to own Big Save markets and other food-related businesses — recognized hardships such bans could impose.
However, by last year Kawakami said his perspective had changed and he was moving toward support of controlling such plastic waste.
“What most people don’t understand is that because Kaua‘i is the smallest county, it comes down to economy of scale and how much hardship could be created for local businesses.
“From a logistical standpoint, suppliers view Kaua‘i as a small market. You don’t have the economies of scale you have on O‘ahu.” Having the state’s other counties take action before Kaua‘i, he said, “creates economies of scale for these mom-and-pops, and will drive down the costs of supplies they buy to a point where it makes it economically feasible. That’s where my business experience comes in.”
Companies that supply the food-service industry, he said, are unlikely to let their operations policies be driven by “an island with a population of 70,000.”
Chock said Kaua‘i County must move cautiously to avoid disruption of large events that are planned long in advance, such as the Kaua‘i County Farm Bureau Fair and Koloa Plantation Days.
Evslin, who said he supports the ordinance introduced by Chock and Kuali‘i, said he understands the cautious approach of his colleagues and the mayor, though “I just think it would be easier and more effective if we were doing what the City &County (of Honolulu) are doing.”
Although it took many years for Hawai‘i counties to address the plastic-foam and plastic-utensil problems, each county eventually used the opportunity to build on legislation that led up to plastic-bag bans that were implemented in stages throughout the state that dated, in at least the case of Honolulu, back to 1990.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.