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Preparing to serve up environmentally friendly plate lunches

Ban on polystyrene foam products takes effect Dec. 31

Roy Suda displays the types of polystyrene containers he and wife Carol use to serve food at Suda Seafood & Deli Tuesday morning in Kihei. Roy Suda said they go through about two boxes of the bowls and platters a month selling fresh fish, saimin and chow fun. A county ban on polystyrene containers takes effect Dec. 31. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

With the ban on polystyrene foam products set to take effect Dec. 31, some businesses are gearing up for the possible increase in costs — but at least one food truck operator believes the switch is affordable.

“To address the situation of ‘it’s too expensive for us to change over and it’s going to be a financial burden,’ really it’s not,” Kyle Kawakami, owner and chef of Maui Fresh Streatery, said during a public hearing Tuesday night.

“There are other items,” he said, referring to alternative food containers.

Last May, the Maui County Council voted unanimously to ban the sale and use of polystyrene food containers, a familiar sight in local plate lunch eateries around the island. The ban goes into effect at the end of this year, and now the draft rules are available for public review at mauicounty.gov/recycle.

The rules prohibit food providers from selling, using, providing or offering the use of the polystyrene containers. The same goes for county facilities or programs, county-authorized concessions and county-sponsored or permitted events.

Cuts of fresh ahi are weighed Tuesday at Suda Seafood & Deli. Roy Suda’s family has been using foam plate lunch plates since 1974 when the old Suda Store opened near the Kihei Canoe Club.

Exemptions include:

• Polystyrene foam containers used for raw or butchered meats, poultry, fish or eggs unless provided for consumption without further food preparation (such as sashimi and poke).

• Polystyrene foam coolers and ice chests designed for multiple use.

• Foam blocks or pieces used as protective packaging during shipping.

• Packaging in situations unique to the type of food where there are no reasonable or affordable alternatives; food providers must apply for exemptions.

• Packaging in situations unique to the food provider where compliance with the ban would cause significant hardship and there is no affordable alternative; food providers must apply for exemptions.

• Packaging in any situation deemed by the county to be an emergency requiring the immediate preservation of life, health, property, safety or essential public services.

Roy Suda’s family has been using the foam plate lunch plates since 1974, when the old Suda Store first opened in a spot near the Kihei Canoe Club. The family closed down the store in 2003 and reopened as Suda Seafood & Deli at the Shell gas station in Kihei in 2008. Suda said the store uses about 100 to 200 foam containers a day, which includes both trays and large cups.

“Everything that we do is all take out,” Suda said via phone Tuesday. “We use a lot of foam cups and trays for our fish and our saimin and chow fun noodles.”

Suda said he hasn’t decided yet what kind of products he’ll switch to, and thus doesn’t know exactly what the cost increase will be. His current supplier is Maui Chemical and Paper Products.

“It’s going to affect a lot of businesses as far as fast food goes,” Suda said. “We use a lot of the styrofoam containers, and so the cost of the food products is definitely going up because they have to compensate for the costs (of the new containers).”

Suda said he still believes his business will be able to operate, though the costs will be passed on to the customers. But overall, he said, he thinks the move toward environmentally friendly containers is a good one for the county.

Kawakami said he also supports the ban and said there are plenty of affordable products on the market. He made the decision “to go completely recyclable” when he started the Maui Fresh Streatery food truck in 2013.

“I think a lot of the fear that people have about this move towards biodegradable and recyclable products is based off of a lack of information and lack of knowing what to do when the time comes for the changeover,” Kawakami said.

The chef/owner agreed that it can be “hard to get away” from the cheaply priced foam containers. Costco, for example, sells them in packs of 100 for $16.59, or about 16 cents apiece. However, Kawakami has found similar biodegradable “clamshell” containers at Hopaco for 21 cents apiece. And, he said last year Costco tested the waters for fiber-based takeout containers at 19 cents apiece.

Kawakami also uses products from Sustainable Island Products in Hilo, which recently opened an outlet in Wailuku. A biodegradable bowl costs 32 cents each — slightly more pricey. But he anticipates prices going down as demand grows.

“Places are going to have to bring the prices down, because the busier it gets with people buying it, the places that had it cheap are going to capture the business,” he said. “Places are charging more because (the ban) is not enforced.”

Jerry Masaki, general manager at the Pukalani Superette, said after the public hearing that the ban shouldn’t have too big of an impact on the longtime Upcountry store. It mostly uses flat foam containers for produce and “fragile” items like asparagus.

“I guess now we’ll just put them in bags,” he said. “It’s just a matter of us trying to figure out what we can do and what we can’t do.”

Masaki was also supportive of the ban and said that “everybody’s just trying to be ahead of the game and be prepared when the transition” comes. Pukalani Superette will likely switch out any banned containers a couple months before the new rules take effect, he said.

“Hopefully there’s sufficient inventory,” he said. “I guess that would be one concern, as the demand gets greater on these products, if they’ll be able to keep up with the inventory and hopefully maintain pricing to where it’s competitive.”

For more information on the rules, call the Department of Environmental Management’s Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division at 270-7880.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.