Star-Advertiser: Council committee defers ban on foam containers

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
November 16, 2017

A Honolulu City Council committee on Wednesday deferred a bill that would bar food vendors from using polystyrene foam food containers and require them to instead use compostable ones.

The decision to defer Bill 71 was met with anger and frustration from representatives of several environmental groups.

Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee Chairwoman Carol Fukunaga said there still appeared to be many concerns with the measure from various sides.

After the meeting, she said in an interview that she doesn’t intend to shelve the bill indefinitely.

“We’re going to have further discussions with the Department of Environmental Services, all the environmental organizations and the food industry folks and see what we can do with Bill 71,” Fukunaga said. If the discussions lead to the need for a new bill, “then we’ll move forward on that.”

When Fukunaga made her recommendation in committee, none of her colleagues raised objections and she moved onto the next item on the agenda. Deferrals at the committee level generally don’t include a formal vote, but several environmentalists criticized her for not conducting a vote.

Earlier this year, Council members deferred Bill 59 (2016), a measure to get rid of loopholes in the plastic bag ban, also citing the need to find a compromise to appease different stakeholders.

More than 40 people testified Wednesday on Bill 71, which was introduced by Councilwoman Kymberly Pine. By about a 3-1 margin, people spoke in favor of a ban on foam containers.

The Rev. Phillip Harmon, founder of the nonprofit Kahu­mana, said the organization serves food at its farm and cafe on bio-­compostable materials that will break down into soil. “Initially, about five years ago, it added about 20 cents to every meal we produced,” Harmon said. “Five years later, it’s 11 cents. ”

Additionally, “it doesn’t leak; it’s designed to accept the oil and grease from whatever the meal is,” he said.

Several other restaurateurs, as well as environmental groups, testified that not only is styrene, a key chemical in foam containers, harmful to animals and the environment, it’s unhealthy for humans as well.

Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai‘i co-founder Dean Otsuki said, “Styrene has been linked to cancer, vision and hearing loss, impaired memory and concentration, and nervous system effects. … The chemicals accumulate in your body … and that’s when you get into trouble.”

David Acheson of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii said the organization’s various temples are trying to convert to using only reusables and recyclables. At his own temple, members are being encouraged to bring their own cups, utensils and plates. “This is the way we’re heading,” he said. “We’re not there yet. … It’s a journey.”

The Hawaii Food Industry Association, the Retail Merchants Association and Malama 808, a group composed of restaurateurs and merchants billed as dedicated to ridding Hawaii of litter, testified against the bill.

Lauren Zirbel of the Hawaii Food Industry Association said requiring compostable food containers would “provide no positive upside to the environment” because they don’t go to a composting facility, but would increase costs for businesses and, ultimately, consumers.

Even commonly used egg containers and meat trays would be banned under the bill, she said. “This is a huge cost.”

Jason Higa, president of FCH Enterprises, the parent company of Zippy’s Restaurants, said his restaurants switched to Type 5 polypropylene containers, which are microwave-safe, in 2010 in response to customer feedback.

Higa said he’s most troubled with the bill’s requirement that restaurants use compostable containers, something his company explored last year. “Our biggest concern with compostable containers is from a safety standpoint. … The integrity of that container is an issue for employees as well as our customers.”

About 10 employees of KYD Inc., a local manufacturer of disposable containers, testified that they may lose their jobs if the bill is passed.

In related news, the committee also deferred Bill 73, which attempts to tackle littering through education by providing incentives for nonprofits to help.