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Plastic utensils ban begins in January

Some businesses have already made the switch; others fear rising costs

A box of donated plastic forks is opened at a homeless food distribution site Thursday in Lahaina. “These will be Christmas ornaments next year,” said a volunteer. Plastic utensils will start to become a thing of the past in Maui County once a new law goes into effect Jan. 1 banning stores and suppliers from selling plastic forks, spoons, knives, straws and even foam coolers. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

No longer will a plastic fork and knife come with a customer’s plate lunch in the new year.

Beginning Jan. 1, stores and suppliers will be prohibited from selling plastic forks, spoons, knives, straws and even foam coolers. Restaurants and businesses also will no longer give the plastic foodware or containers out for use.

Food providers are allowed to offer nonplastic alternative utensils but only upon request or approval of the customer.

The changes come in the wake of Bill 52, passed by the Maui County Council and signed into law by Mayor Michael Victorino last year, in hopes of protecting the environment from the negative impacts of plastic disposable foodware. This spring, Honolulu City and County also enacted a similar law, although with different restrictions from Maui County.

Preparing for the change, some of Maui’s businesses say they understand the intent of the law but that it’s also taxing and will add more to their bottom line at a time when they are facing other rising costs.

A discarded plastic spoon litters the parking lot near the summit of Haleakala National Park Friday morning. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“It’s not easy for us, especially with all the prices of everything going up, all of supplies went up, all of our food went up and now we got to deal with this, too,” said Ron “Kalani” Daniels, owner of Cupies.

“We are trying to keep our prices down,” he added.

Daniels said his plans about what to do with his plastics are still up in the air and that he was waiting to see what alternatives his vendors would bring in.

This includes the clear plastic cups that he uses for his shakes and slushies, through which he and his workers can see if the drinks are properly blended and easily identify flavors when giving them to customers. With the paper alternatives they won’t be able to see inside, he said.

At Millyard Hamburger Steak House, owner Ezra Ka said he knows what the bill aims to do but said “there is such a way we can prevent it (littering of plastics) instead of taking away.”

Plastic utensils like the one shown here will be banned come Jan. 1 under a law passed by the Maui County Council and signed by Mayor Michael Victorino last year in hopes of protecting the environment from the negative impacts of plastic disposable foodware. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Ka is also worried about potential higher costs; while he did not have exact numbers on hand, he estimated costs could double or triple depending on what his vendors charge him for the plastic replacements. Ka said the change will force him to raise prices but not by too much, as he was trying not to chase away locals, his main customer base.

Like Daniels, Ka was also waiting to see what vendors would bring in for him to use, but he already had concerns about the wooden spoons that he described as “shovels” that did not scoop up liquid well.

For other businesses, the switch to plastic alternatives has been years in the making.

Down to Earth, which has locations on Maui and Oahu, has offered customers only biodegradable and compostable utensils “for many years” and transitioned away from plastic straws about three years ago, said Alison Riggs, customer service and public policy and government relations manager for Down to Earth Organic & Natural.

The grocery store, which also offers a salad and hot food bar as well as a deli, still uses some plastics due to customer preference.

“We have been using nonplastic deli products for a while, so the higher cost of the goods is something that we have been able to budget for and adjust to over time,” Riggs said in an email. “We have not had to pass on this specific expense to our customers.”

“Our Maui customers have been very supportive and appreciative that we are transitioning away from many single-use plastics,” she added.

But the eatery and store does continue to put “grab-n-go” foods and bakery items in plastic containers, which is currently allowed in the law, Riggs said.

Down to Earth would like to transition away from this as well, but customers have told them they want to be able to see the food before purchasing it, “so we are looking for good alternatives to allow for that.”

Tamara Farnsworth, manager of the Environmental Protection & Sustainability Division, said in an email that county staff will be visiting businesses to ensure they are compliant or moving toward compliance beginning in the first week of January.

“Reducing our use of single-use plastics is good for the health of the people, the land and the waters of Maui Nui,” she said. “This new law is a small, but significant step in the right direction.”

Farnsworth said her division has worked over the past year to educate affected businesses about the ban. This included mailing out two informational packets to nearly 2,000 Maui County food service providers, retailers and wholesale distributors. In the packets were copies of the ordinance, draft administrative rules and educational resources such as stickers, posters and tabletop signs.

The office has also kept in touch directly with dozens of businesses to answer their questions, Farnsworth said.

A website was established early on at www.mauicounty.gov/PlasticFree with regular updates on the latest information and policies.

The public may also call the Recycling Hotline at (808) 270-7880 with any questions.

In September, the division also gave two public presentations for the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and Hawaii Food Industry Association, and in December, it held an informational Zoom meeting for local wholesale distributors detailing policies and the exemption applications process.

Farnsworth said as of Dec. 16, the county has received between 10 to 15 exemption requests from wholesale distributors, a couple of retailers and a few food service providers. But she added they are receiving more every day.

There is a special section on the application for businesses facing shipping or supply delays.

Retailers and food service establishments should check with their local wholesale distributors before applying for an individual exemption. Applications for exemptions are available upon request.

Some temporary exemptions have been granted due to COVID-19 shipping delays, so the public may continue to see some plastic foodware still in use over the next few months, Farnsworth said.

Businesses with county-approved exemptions will be posting notices at the point of sale or in the areas where the items are still being sold and/or used.

Maui County residents are encouraged to report instances of plastic foodware still being used or sold where no notice of exemption is posted so Environmental Protection & Sustainability staff can educate and assist those businesses to move into full compliance with the new law, Farnsworth added.

According to the ordinance, violators are subject to civil penalties and enforcement procedures.

The county has released print and digital ads notifying the public of the new law over the past two months and has put up banners at its recycling centers.

The education program will continue through the next year, Farnsworth said.

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

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