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Council sends foam food container ban to commission

Updated: 
July 8, 2017 - 12:05am

HILO — Bolstered by the passage of a similar measure on Maui, the Hawaii County Council on Friday moved an amended version of a bill banning polystyrene foam food containers to the Environmental Management Commission.

The measure, Bill 13, will return to the council later this summer for further action on first reading. If passed, it would go into effect July 1, 2019, with an educational program initiated that January.

Maui’s bill, passed unanimously by that council and signed last month by Mayor Alan Arakawa, goes into effect Dec. 31, 2018. This makes Maui the first county in the state to pass a ban, while Hawaii County has been struggling with it for several years.

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, the bill sponsor, asked that the bill go to the Environmental Management Commission, whose members previously complained they’d had no input. O’Hara had led an ad hoc committee of stakeholders after the bill bogged down on a split vote last year.

Testifiers have been overwhelmingly in favor of the ban.

The only testifier opposed to the measure Friday was Joy Gold, who represents an Oahu foam food container manufacturer.

She said the ban doesn’t make sense because the county doesn’t have a compost facility to handle the compostable alternatives. In fact, she said, the polystyrene foam containers are seen as a valuable feedstock for waste-to-energy plants such as one in the works for a site near the Puuanahulu landfill in West Hawaii.

Gold said East Hawaii businesses buy 80 percent locally distributed polystyrene and 20 percent compostable or other paper-based products. The opposite is true in West Hawaii. Foam food containers account for less than one percent of waste in Big Island landfills, she said.

She said compostable products can cost $40 to $65 more a case containing 200 to 500 units.

“Smaller mom and pop operators must outlay cash to purchase cases of product in advance of sales,” she said in testimony. “This impacts thin profit margins and raising the cost of plate lunches is not always a competitive option.”

Other testifiers disagreed.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, speaking as an individual, said it’s been more than 18 years since his Island Naturals stores opened, using almost no polystyrene food containers.

“I’ve been watching with humor as folks say we can’t do it,” Ruderman said. “It’s fear-mongering that’s been going on. It’s not reality.”

Steve Hirakami, director of Hawaii Academy of Arts &Science Public Charter School, disputed figures provided by opponents. He said his school switched from foam to alternative containers for its 637 students after he saw prices dropping because of more competition among manufacturers.

While the containers once cost an average of 34 cents compared to 11 or 12 cents for foam, the price has now dropped to 18 cents, he said.

Some council members didn’t think the cost difference was too great.

“The cost to the environment and sea life is more important than a few more cents on a product,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff.

Eoff, along with two other current council members, had voted for the ban last year. Some other council members still aren’t ready to decide, and one member, Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, has said repeatedly he is opposed.

Some council members want further tweaking.

“The exemptions bother me,” said Richards, vice chairman of the ad hoc committee. “If we’re going to be a county that embraces it, we should embrace it wholeheartedly.”

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.

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