A closer look: Regulating single-use polystyrene food containers

On July 28, the County Council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee, which I chair, initially discussed a bill that would generally prohibit the use and sale of single-use polystyrene disposable food containers in Maui County.

Strong opinions from opposing sides of the measure led to the creation of an informal community task force composed of community stakeholders including food vendors, restaurateurs, business supporters, county officials, food container manufacturers and wholesalers and environmental advocates. The objectives of the task force, led by the bill’s author, Council Member Mike Victorino, were to review the bill, clarify its purpose, identify the products subject to the bill and comment on the bill’s impacts on food providers and county programs.

The task force submitted its report at the committee meeting on Monday. The report is available at mauicounty.us.

As the task force reported, a popular misconception is that polystyrene is the same as Styrofoam. Styrofoam is used as a building material and would not be subject to the bill before the committee.

Cost is a prominent concern raised by opposition to the bill; however, as reported by the task force, more and more businesses are opting for environmentally friendly materials such as plant fiber containers. According to information shared by wholesalers of disposable food service containers, nonpolystyrene containers sales are increasing, and businesses are phasing out polystyrene.

Consumers are more aware of protecting the environment and the adverse effects polystyrene has on our natural resources and, ultimately, our health.

According to the bill, food providers can apply for a one-year exemption from the restriction on polystyrene food containers. But no exemption is provided for county facilities, such as community centers, or county programs or activities.

The task force recommended a two-year grace period if the bill is enacted.

The bill’s primary intent is to protect marine animals and birds from the hazards of plastic litter; however, there is some disagreement as to whether the bill is an appropriate means of doing so. What has been established, though, is that there is a need for educational outreach and improved litter control in order to mitigate litter hazards.

The bill may also provide other environmental and health benefits, such as reducing the consumption of nonrenewable resources and the public’s exposure to known neurotoxins and carcinogens.

After formally accepting the task force’s report, the committee received two hours of testimony on Monday. I hope to schedule the bill for decision-making early in the new year.

In 2008, the Maui County Council passed landmark legislation – Ordinance 3587 – which is now incorporated into the Maui County Code as Chapter 20.18, also known as the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance. Pairing the polystyrene bill with the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance places the county on the right track for protecting our fragile and unique island environment and combating the global problem of plastic marine debris.

On July 1, 2015, a ban on polystyrene disposable food containers will take effect in New York City, following in the footsteps of numerous other cities such as Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Seattle; and San Jose, Calif.

Maui County may be next.

* Elle Cochran holds the County Council seat for the West Maui residency district. She is chairwoman of the Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee. “Chair’s 3 Minutes” is a weekly column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters.


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