Kaua‘i ditching foam boxes, prepping for new law

  • Laurel Smith / The Garden Island

    One of the few remaining foam clamshells from a Lihu‘e lunch spot.

  • Scott Yunker / The Garden Island

    From left: Camila Lagazo and Elena Camat show off new cardboard containers at Oki’s Box Lunch in Kukui Grove.

LIHU‘E — Island eateries will no longer serve food in polystyrene containers beginning Jan. 1, when a county ordinance passed in 2020 finally takes effect.

The restrictions delayed by the coronavirus pandemic are a long time coming, according to Kaua‘i Division of Solid Waste personnel.

“For the last 10 years, there’s been talk about it, because that’s something that beach communities throughout the mainland have been dealing with,” Solid Waste Program Development Coordinator Allison Fraley said Tuesday. “Within the state, we’re the last (county) to pass this law.”

Fraley and Recycling Programs Coordinator Keola Aki estimate 80% of Kaua‘i businesses are already in compliance with the ordinance. Now, they will begin visiting island businesses to identify and assist those who haven’t made the switch.

The Solid Waste staff also encourages business owners to call the division with any questions they may have.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to our office. We’re here to help,” Fraley said.

Polystyrene is a plastic foam that isn’t degradable or feasibly recyclable in Hawai‘i. But it is lightweight, and easily breaks down into bite-size pieces consumed by marine and avian life. This environmental impact is exacerbated on the Hawaiian Islands, where plate lunches and food trucks are common.

“There’s not a lot of places that can do the work to change polystyrene foam into a usable product,” Aki explained, noting few facilities capable of performing the task exist in the U.S.

The process is lengthy. First, a recycler must “densify” the foam using a special compactor to fit more plastic into less space. Once delivered to a manufacturer, the foam must be remelted and re-extruded into a mold before it’s transformed into a usable product.

Even then, the process doesn’t apply to food containers.

“Clean packaging, that’s one thing … yeah, sure, maybe somebody can use it,” Aki said. “But if somebody’s had food or liquid in there, nobody wants that material, because they don’t want the liability of having to try and decontaminate it and reuse it.”

The polystyrene ordinance applies to plates, trays, cups, bowls, cartons and clamshell boxes – effectively, any foam container prepared food is served in.

Foods packaged outside of the county — like eggs and most raw, unprepared meats — are excluded from the ordinance. Businesses may also apply for a hardship exemption from the ordinance, as well.

Restaurant owners and employees who spoke to The Garden Island are taking the upcoming change in stride.

Staff at the Kaua‘i Poke Company food truck in Lawai, Sushi Girl in Kilauea and Kenji Burger in Lihu‘e reported their businesses utilized compostable food containers prior to the new law.

“We try to go ahead and conserve for the environment, all that good stuff,” Kenji Burger Manager Gail Mande said.

Plate-lunch spots in Kukui Grove in Lihu‘e are set to complete the switch in the coming weeks. Fang Jie, owner of the food court’s L&L Hawaiian Barbecue location, purchased his first pack of cardboard clamshells in October.

“It’s not very difficult,” an L&L cashier said between orders, shrugging her shoulders.

Across the dining area at Oki’s Box Lunches and Omiyage, things are much the same. New cardboard to-go boxes are stacked on a shelf while Oki’s uses up the last of its polystyrene clamshells.

Elena Camat, of Oki’s, said her local wholesaler no longer stocks plastic foam containers. She also shrugged her shoulders, indicating the change represents a slight inconvenience for “what’s right.”

Compostable alternatives are more expensive than polystyrene containers as a rule, but the price gap continues to narrow, according to Solid Waste.

Camat said it’s hard to calculate differences in cost, due to variables.

“I would say about $20 (more per case),” she estimated. “It depends if it’s a single tray, a triple-pocket tray.”

Businesses can read the new law, apply for a hardship exemption, review compostable alternatives and more online at https://www.kauai.gov/polystyreneban.

Solid Waste is also seeking volunteers to participate in its upcoming survey and other initiatives. For more information, email the division at solidwaste@kauai.gov or call Aki at 808-241-4195.

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