Plate lunches soon will need a new plate

New law bans foam takeout containers starting Dec. 31

A polystyrene clamshell plate lunch container rests in weeds along Kahului Beach Road on Thursday morning, a short distance from the ocean. A ban on the use of polystyrene foam food containers takes effect Dec. 31 in Maui County. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The iconic white foam plate, synonymous with local plate lunches, soon will be no more in Maui County.

The county law banning expanded polystyrene foam food containers takes effect on Dec. 31.

Starting then, businesses cannot use or sell foam food service containers in the county. Affected are hinged clamshell containers, cups, plates, bowls and serving trays. If food or beverages can be served on it and its made of EPS, it is not allowed, according to the county.

Mayor Alan Arakawa signed the measure into law on June 5, 2017, after the Maui County Council unanimously passed the bill.

Years in the making, the law attracted testimony from environmental advocates urging an end to the containers, which do not degrade. But along with it came testimony, especially from small-business operators, claiming the loss of the cheap and durable containers would hurt their bottom lines and possibly raise prices for customers.

Joel Kawasaki, executive vice president of Maui Chemical & Paper Products, shows some of the new products offered to fill the void left by the upcoming ban on polystyrene products in Maui County. The clamshells, bowls and trays were made from a variety of materials, including compressed palm fronds, bagasse and paper. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

An estimated 2,000 businesses in Maui County are affected by the new law, said Tamara Farnsworth, the county’s Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division manager in the Department of Environmental Management.

The department sent out more than 1,700 information packets to affected businesses, including final administrative rules, fact sheets, promotional materials and contact information for support. The department also reached out to businesses to attend public hearings as administrative rules were being developed in early 2018. More than 50 businesses and all of the major food service-ware distributors were surveyed on how best to be served during the transition, Farnsworth said.

Christopher “Malik” Cousins, owner of Local Boys Shave Ice and Farmacy Health Bar, has been an advocate of the bill since the beginning. He said he did away with foam cups about 10 years ago.

Cousins was at the landfill when he saw one of his own shave ice cups blow past him. He even saw his own writing on the cup indicating the shave ice flavor.

“It was from years before,” Cousins said of the cup.

This photo was taken Thursday at TJ’s Warehouse Outlet in Wailuku. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

He said he felt compelled to switch to compostable cups.

“Then we raised our price 10 cents or 15 cents, nobody noticed,” he said.

Cousins, who testified in favor of the bill, says he uses only cups, plates and other packaging material that one can “throw on the ground” and have “melt away” in 90 days.

Joel Kawasaki, vice president of the family businesses TJ’s Warehouse and Maui Chemical & Paper Products in Wailuku, said the white foam containers used at the okazuya, where people can pick and choose prepared dishes, have been phased out. The foam trays that hold yakitori chicken and cooked fish will be replaced by a plastic tray, the only tray-type container that can withstand the hot food.

“I’m pretty indifferent,” he said of the new law. “For me, I haven’t really raised any prices as a result of this. We kind of eat the cost of this. I didn’t want to raise anything yet.”

But Kawasaki says there is a price difference.

TJ’s also sells food containers, and Kawasaki said the cost of a foam lunch plate may hover around 12 cents per piece, while an environmentally friendly plate is around 25 cents or higher.

Kawasaki said that some businesses were not happy about paying higher prices, but knew they needed to comply with the law.

Back at the okazuya, Kawasaki uses compostable containers made with PLA, or polylactic acid, a plastic lining material that makes the container more durable.

The Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division said there has been some feedback from businesses that say the cost of compliant products is potentially “four times as much” as foam products. But the division said that four times as much generally equates to about 25 cents or less per container. In an email, the division said that it understands that every penny counts, but officials have heard consumers say that they are willing to pay a little extra to prevent pollution and help the environment.

Farnsworth said: “Enacting this type of legislation is action we can take at a local level to combat the huge issue of plastics in the environment, and in particular, for us living in island communities. It’s important to keep in mind that plastics never go away; they break down into smaller bits, but do not degrade for hundreds of years. We as consumers can and should consider these consequences when we make purchasing decisions in our everyday lives.”

According to the division, polystyrene foam is lightweight, floats and is more likely to be blown from landfills, even when disposed of properly. Marine debris is 60 to 80 percent polystyrene. The substance’s fragments float in the ocean and serve as a transport mechanism for toxic substances.

Other municipalities that have banned polystyrene food containers reported up to 60 percent less polystyrene litter, the division said.

The new law will be enforced by the Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division, Farnsworth said. It will investigate and make recommendations regarding the violations with the director of Environmental Management, who’ll make final determinations.

If a business does not comply, it could receive a notice of violation that may require any or all of the following:

• Cease and desist from the violation.

• Correct the violation at the person’s own expense before a specified date.

• Pay a civil fine not to exceed $1,000, by a specified date.

• Pay a civil fine of up to $1,000 per day for each day the violation persists.

Farnsworth said polystyrene food containers still may be used for raw or butchered meats, poultry, fish or eggs — basically food that needs further preparation to eat, according to the county.

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