×

Taking the polystyrene out of the plate lunch

County Council moves closer to banning the ubiquitous containers

Polystyrene containers would be banned under a bill that gained initial approval Friday by the Maui County Council. The containers are often used for popular island plate lunches. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A ban on disposable polystyrene food service containers moved closer to reality Friday as the Maui County Council approved a bill on first reading to restrict the use and sale of the containers in the county.

The second and final reading will likely take place early next year. Friday’s meeting was the last of the year and the last of the council’s 2015-16 term.

In giving their initial approval, council members also approved an amendment proposed by council Vice Chairman Don Guzman that would extend the polystyrene prohibition to food products prepared and packaged entirely outside of the county, such as instant ramen noodles.

An earlier version of the bill approved by the Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee exempted food products from outside the county.

The council spent around 45 minutes examining the amendment, and brought up legal concerns about interstate commerce regulations. But Guzman said the bill  could face legal challenges if it didn’t provide for a level playing field — which could happen if county businesses are subject to the polystyrene prohibition but outside businesses are exempt.

Getting your favorite plate lunch in a polystyrene clamshell may be just a fond memory if the County Council moves forward with a proposed ban of the containers. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“This would equalize it or make it a fair playing field,” Guzman said. “Where it’s all styrene products that are (used) with food. Whether it is outside the county and inside the county (styrene) cannot be used.”

Guzman added that the bill provides a hardship clause in which a company or food provider may be granted an exemption by showing a good reason.

Council Member Bob Carroll said he was concerned that if the bill triggered legal issues, federal funding could be affected.

Corporation Counsel Patrick Wong said it’s difficult to speculate how legal challenges could affect federal funding. He told the council that for the county to defend itself against legal challenges, there should be scientific evidence and information to show how the bill serves the public interest.

In response to a question from Council Member Riki Hokama, Wong said he was not comfortable being able to defend the county with the scientific information the council cited for its vote on Friday.

Some council members, including outgoing Council Member Mike Victorino, who introduced the measure, expressed a need to pass it because it’s been worked on for six years. He and other council members said legal issues could be worked out in the 18 months before the bill goes into effect on July 1, 2018.

“I can support this. I ‘d like to see us up or down it,” Victorino said.

He added that the bill would be a first step, and — like the plastic bag ban bill — the measure could be reviewed and tweaked.

Council Member Don Couch, who also was attending his last council meeting, said: “We’re going to get sued. For windmills and taxes and whatever else, because of policy decisions we make.

“I think we need to determine whether or not, what our policy is going to be and if we’re willing to worry about lawsuits later,” he said.

He noted a testifier who said perfect is the enemy of good. He said a perfect bill would never come, but the polystyrene ban bill was “good.”

Couch added that Guzman’s amendment may be a “double-edge sword”: If products such as ramen noodles are not exempt, it would affect the availability of the popular product for families.

Under the measure, food providers would not be permitted yo use, provide or offer the use of polystyrene food service containers. The containers could not be sold in Maui County. They also would be prohibited at any county facility, county-authorized concession, or any county-sponsored or county-permitted event or program.

Polystyrene food containers would be allowed for raw or butchered meats, poultry, fish and eggs.

The measure says that because polystyrene is lightweight and breaks down into small fragments after disposal, it persists for decades, and it “has significant negative impacts on the environment, contributes to the potential death of marine animals and avian populations through ingestion and is a suspected human carcinogen.”

Council members amended the bill to review it in 2021.

Many testifiers supported the measure, saying it would help the environment. Some food business operators said they found economically friendly containers at good prices, and bill supporters said customers should be willing to pay extra costs passed on by businesses complying with the ban.

Bill opponents said the added costs for eco-friendly containers would be passed on to customers, and that would impact small businesses. They say the bill would not solve all pollution problems because many non-degradable containers remain on the market and littering is really the culprit for releasing the containers into the environment.

Janice Simeon, wife of Maui celebrity chef Sheldon Simeon, testified that in the beginning their business had a hard time finding an affordable and convenient way to buy and use eco-friendly foodware. But the business located a Hilo vendor to ship affordable containers to Maui, she said.

She said the Simeons’ restaurant, Tin Roof, uses 99 percent compostable packaging for its food.

We are “phasing out our current 1 percent,” she added.

Marilyn Jorgensen, of CJ’s Deli & Diner in Kaanapali, said that pricing for eco-friendly foodware would costs thousands of dollars more for her small restaurant.

She said the expenses cannot be easily passed on to customers because customers complain about prices on social media.

Jorgensen added that the environmentally friendly containers have leaked and that her restaurant’s food needs to arrive in visitor rooms in good condition.

The polystyrene ban also would be another hit to small businesses struggling to survive, she said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.