Food container bill flawed, businesses say

WAILUKU – Big and small businesses say that a bill restricting polystyrene disposable food containers in Maui County will increase costs for them and for their customers and has another major flaw – there currently is no facility on Maui that can recycle the alternative food containers.

“There is no place on Maui that will accept food service grade (containers) for reuse,” said Harry Nakagawa, a representative of Maui Chemical & Paper Products, who opposes the bill to eliminate the use of polystyrene, or Styrofoam, containers.

Nakagawa said that the biodegradable food containers that can be composted or recycled will end up in the landfills anyway. While he supports the intent of the bill to protect the environment, he said it will not provide any benefit to residents and will only bring higher costs.

Lauren Campbell, marine conservation program manager at Pacific Whale Foundation, countered that while there may be no place to recycle or process the containers, the bill is “a good first step.” Tests show that polystyrene is one of the most toxic consumer-based plastics, she said.

Campbell said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that everyone has styrene (from which the containers are made) in their fatty tissue.

Campbell and Nakagawa were among 16 people who testified before the Maui County Council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee on Monday afternoon in Council Chambers. The panel is hearing a bill proposed six years ago by Council Member Mike Victorino that would prohibit the sale and use of disposable polystyrene containers by food providers in Maui County.

The committee deferred action on the bill Monday afternoon. Committee Chairwoman Elle Cochran said prior to the meeting that she wanted to put the bill “back on the table” since it has sat around for so long. During the meeting, Cochran agreed to bring in experts to discuss the bill further.

Victorino said Monday afternoon that the food container law is targeted at those who give out the containers at the point of sale, such as for plate lunches, and will not impact stores that use Styrofoam plates for holding raw meats, poultry and fish.

The bill includes an exemption to allow polystyrene-packaged foods that are prepared or packaged outside of the county. That aspect of the bill drew the ire of some local businesses, who said that it would be unfair to them.

In response, Victorino said it was never his intent to create an unlevel playing field, though he did add that it would be difficult to regulate container use for products that come in from outside Maui.

He added that the bill as it is was just a first step in the process and that the council was seeking input.

Maui County Department of Environmental Management Director Kyle Ginoza said Monday that polystyrene containers account for less than a tenth of a percent in space and weight of material in the landfill. If the compostable and biodegradable containers enter the landfill, they will take time to break down, although polystyrene takes longer.

Ginoza confirmed that the county’s compost program is not capable of accepting the compostable food containers.

He also provided a cost comparison. Polystyrene containers cost 8 to 18 cents each depending on the volume purchased; biodegradable food containers cost 30 to 40 cents each.

Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap said that the cost of the bill to businesses and consumers has not yet been measured. She added that many biodegradable container options come from China and shipping costs could be high from there.

She volunteered to have her organization survey members on how they feel about the measure.

On the health risks of polystyrene, Tumpap referred to a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, which concluded that there is no cause for concern from exposure to styrene.

Others who testified noted that there could be health issues from using the biodegradable containers; they may not hold heat as well and could become soggy.

Gretchen Leisenring, representing Styrophobia, a Honolulu-based company that sells containers that are alternatives to Styrofoam, said some more environmentally friendly containers cost the same as Styrofoam containers or are cheaper. She said that some businesses on Maui have shown interest in purchasing the company’s products.

While Leisenring testified before the council six years ago on the bill, she thought that Maui County was not ready for the bill then – but it is now.

Testifiers in favor of the bill noted that large cities such as New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have a similar Styrofoam restriction in place.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at