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Let’s bid farewell to single-use plastics in Maui County in 2022

OUR COUNTY

Most baby boomers will remember an iconic scene in the 1967 movie “The Graduate.” Dustin Hoffman plays a recent college grad unsure of his future. At a party, a family friend pulls him aside for a word of career advice. “Plastics,” he whispers in his ear. After a pause, he continues, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Within 50 years, plastics have gone from an engineering marvel to become one of the most used materials in the world. Cheap to make and easy to discard, plastics have become a global curse that’s choking solid waste systems and polluting the world’s oceans.

Drive past the Maui County Landfill on Pulehu Road and witness the lofty elevation of “Mount Opala.” It’s an unhappy reminder of what happens after we “throw stuff away” here. There is no “away” on an island. Rubbish stays right here in our backyard or worse, it makes its way into the ocean.

Hawaii sits in the middle of ocean currents that carry floating marine debris — mostly plastics — to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Because plastics don’t decompose, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These microplastics pepper our beaches with colorful “plastic sand” that gets into the food of larval fish. As one animal eats another, microplastics continue up the food chain to human beings. That means we can eat microplastics in our ahi poke bowls.

I thank the Maui County Council for passing Bill 52 last year. Now called County Ordinance 5084, it bans the sale and use of single-use plastic foodware throughout Maui County as of Jan. 1, 2022. This means no more polystyrene food containers, plastic forks, spoons, knives, plastic cups or plastic straws will be available at your favorite takeout restaurant or retail store.

The end of single-use plastics isn’t an end to convenience. Compostable utensils made from paper, plant starch, bamboo, sugar cane or other compostable materials can be used. Will it take some getting used to? Yes. Will it be worth it? Absolutely yes.

We’ve heard the slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and Tamara Farnsworth, who manages our Environmental and Sustainability Division, emphasizes that reduce and reuse come before recycle for a reason.

“Reducing waste at the source is most important — if you don’t need it, don’t acquire it,” she said. “Reusing comes second. Swapping out single-use water bottles for a refillable bottle can prevent more than 1,000 plastic bottles from entering the landfill, or the ocean, annually. A small personal action like this makes a big impact.”

For centuries, the islands of Maui Nui had no solid waste disposal problems. Natural, compostable materials like gourds, coconut shells, wood and bamboo were used for cooking and eating. After serving their purpose, they were returned to the land to decompose into natural soil. It was “zero waste” living at its peak.

During the plantation years, island workers packed their lunches in reusable “kaukau tins.” These double-decker lunch cans held rice on the bottom and a tasty ethnic concoction above. They were dutifully washed and reused every day. Kaukau tins were precursors of today’s plate lunch — without the indestructible polystyrene clamshell container. Plantation families reused everything, including cloth rice bags that became dresses or aprons. We can still aspire to achieve “zero waste” in Maui County by making small changes that can become habits. Let’s start now. Are you looking for a perfect Christmas gift for a friend who frequents takeout windows? Consider a zero waste, eco-friendly eating utensil kit. During upcoming holiday parties, we can forgo the usual plastic foodware in favor of reusable dishes, cups and utensils.

Now is a good time to prepare for changes in January. Gather your own set of “reusable utensils” and wrap them in a bandana or cloth napkin to keep in your vehicle, handbag or office. After eating, wash and dry them so they are ready for your next meal.

There is no longer a great future in plastics. Now is the perfect time to leave single-use plastics in our past. For more information about Maui’s plastic ban, visit mauicounty.gov/PlasticFree.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column alternates with “Council’s 3 Minutes” every other weekend.

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