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Council to take another bite at foam food container ban

Updated: 
August 23, 2017 - 9:33pm

HILO — A foam food container ban will be back on the table next month, following a unanimous endorsement by the county Environmental Management Commission.

The commission Wednesday moved Bill 13 back to the County Council after recommending minor edits that were discussed during its July meeting. The bill will be heard by the council at its Sept. 7 meeting, said the sponsor, Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara.

While public testimony has been overwhelmingly in favor of banning the plate lunch containers and cups colloquially known as “Styrofoam,” council support is less certain. Hilo Council members Aaron Chung and Sue Lee Loy, Kohala Councilman Tim Richards and Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha have raised concerns and posed critical questions during past debates.

Chung has indicated he’ll vote no, while the other three haven’t committed. Five votes are needed to pass. Those seem solidly in pocket, but O’Hara said she’d like to see more of a consensus. The bill was held from March until June for a council ad hoc committee to work with it, but few changes were made.

“I’m pretty good with where we’re at with it, but I’d like to see more support from the council if possible,” O’Hara said.

The council and even members of the commission have been subjected to intense behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts by food vendors and representatives of a Honolulu-based company that manufactures the food containers.

Commissioner Rick Vidgen said he received a number of phone calls from Honolulu as well as the Big Island, all opposing the measure.

“I was surprised,” Vidgen said.

Two residents — one in favor and one against — testified Wednesday.

Cory Harden, speaking for the Sierra Club, said more than 100 Big Island eateries already use environmentally friendly takeout containers. She said the polystyrene breaks down into tiny pieces, and cited a 2015 study published in Science that found young fish preferred eating the micro-plastic pieces to their natural food.

Fish that ate the micro-plastic pieces were “smaller, slower and more stupid,” she said, as well as hatching fewer viable eggs.

Jerry Warren wondered how many “billable hours” of government time have been devoted to the issue over the past several years.

“This is a politician’s dream and a taxpayer’s nightmare,” he said. “Let’s take that off the table.”

If passed and signed by the mayor, Bill 13 would go into effect July 1, 2019, with an educational program initiated that January. The county Department of Environmental Management will first write rules to enforce the measure.

Fines range from $10 to $600 per violation, depending on whether the violation is part of a special event and the size of the special event. A written warning will first be issued. Each sale or transfer of food in a polystyrene container counts as a single violation.

The bill as written exempts ice chests and coolers, county facility users and food vendors with county approval and providers of supplies during county emergencies declared by the mayor. Food packaged outside the county, and packaging for raw meat, fish, and eggs that have not been further processed are also exempt.

In situations where compliance with the ordinance would result in undue hardship, the Environmental Management director may exempt a food vendor or county facility user from the requirements for a period not to exceed 180 days, under the bill.

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