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Council delays foam container bill

Updated: 
March 9, 2017 - 12:05am

HILO — It’s back to the drawing board for a proposed ban on foam food containers.

The County Council agreed Wednesday to form an ad hoc committee to amend Bill 13, following a flurry of amendments and recommendations from other council members and county staff.

“To me, this is a very important bill and it’s important to get it right,” said Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, sponsor of the bill. “If we have to extend this another year to get it right, let’s get it right.”

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who had opposed the bill at a prior committee meeting, agreed.

“I truly believe everyone on the council is seeking a solution,” Richards said. “We all agree with the intent. … The devil is in the details.”

Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter named O’Hara, Richards, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff to the committee. The committee will incorporate existing amendments and consider other amendments to the measure, with a goal of being complete by June 30.

The move came after an analysis by Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski, who said he can’t support the bill without “adequate financial and personnel support.” Kucharski said the bill would be difficult to enforce, because not all foam food containers are marked as such.

He asked why the bill addresses only polystyrene, a recyclable product, while not addressing other materials that aren’t recyclable.

“Allowing a non-recyclable that is just not polystyrene will simply change the composition of the waste in the environment, not help clean our environment,” Kucharski said.

Bill 13 would prohibit food being dispensed in disposable polystyrene — popularly known as “Styrofoam” — containers beginning July 1, 2018. It would exempt ice chests and coolers, county facility users and food vendors with county approval and providers of supplies during county emergencies declared by the mayor.

Supporters cited the longevity of polystyrene containers, their contribution to unsightly litter, danger to seabirds and marine life that ingest the particles and concerns about chemicals leaching into food and beverages.

Rene Siracusa, testifying from Pahoa, took the council through the history of the county’s plastic bag ban, which passed after years of controversy and ultimately became a model for the state.

“We passed the plastic bag ban and none of the things happened that were said by the naysayers,” Siracusa said.

Opponents say polystyrene is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for food containers, there are ways to recycle the containers, the containers usually cost less, insulate better and are less susceptible to spillage and leakage.

While the foam containers may cost a few cents less for the consumer, it can make a difference of $40 to $45 per case upfront for the small business owner.

“In some cases, that impacts thin profit margins,” said Joy Gold, representing Oahu-based manufacturer K. Yamada Distributors.

There is an East-West divide on the use of polystyrene foam containers, Gold said Wednesday. Gold said 80 percent of East Hawaii restaurants use foam containers, with 20 percent using alternative packaging. It’s the opposite in West Hawaii, she said.

Kohala High School teacher Hannah Anderson touted her students’ work in environmental studies and recycling of various materials. She said people can change “our selfish, lazy human nature of using single-use plastics.”

Opponents, vastly outnumbered by supporters, came mainly from the restaurant and packaging industries.

Richard Hoeflinger of Paradise Park, in written testimony, chastised O’Hara for sponsoring the bill.

“You do realize the net result of such action would be an increase in cost to the people you represent. All costs of doing business are ultimately passed down to the consumer,” said Hoeflinger. “What troubles me most is this proposed action is based purely on emotion and ideology and devoid of any factual basis.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung said there’s very little chance the end product will meet his approval. He said he’d entertain only a bill that banned all polystyrene while grandfathering in existing users. Even then, there’s no guarantee he’d support it, Chung said.

“I’ve been a vehement opponent of this bill and everything like it,” he said.

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