KAILUA-KONA — The food industry can be fickle, its purveyors’ profit margins precarious. As such, in the restaurant business, every cent really does count.
That’s one of several arguments trade organizations like the Hawaii Restaurant Association and the Hawaii Food Industry Association have put forth in their opposition to Senate Bill 2285, which would ban the use of plastic straws throughout the state and slap offenders with fines as well as community service, namely trash details in littered public spaces.
These groups say it’s the bottom lines of small restaurant businesses the proposed regulation would hit hardest, an assertion as true as it is verifiable.
Yet several such establishments on Hawaii Island are nonetheless transitioning away from traditional plastic straws, expenses be damned, to compostable paper straws.
Leilani Nelson-Riley, who co-owns One Aloha Shave Ice off Kuakini Highway with her husband, Nakoa, made the switch to paper straws a few months back.
“The environment is worth it,” Leilani said. “It’s the only one we have and we have to take care of it. Our world is getting filled with little pieces of plastic that we use for five minutes and throw away.”
“Our five minute-need will (linger) for thousands of years,” she continued. “We have to make that investment in our aina. We feel that’s worth every penny.”
Leilani’s every penny characterization is apt, considering that’s just about what it costs per straw to shift from plastic to paper, although in most cases that hike represents a 100 percent increase in price.
Elizabeth Elkjer of Sustainable Island Products, a Hawaii Island business that provides environmentally friendly straws, as well as several other such products, said the average plastic straw used for water or coffee or the like goes for about a penny. Her company’s paper straws sell for two.
Sold in 5,000-straw cases, the cost increase translates to around $50 per case, although Elkjer said bulk purchases can drive that cost differential down.
And a simple shift in policy, like the one implemented by Hilton Waikoloa Village, which recently switched to paper straws and now only includes them with beverage orders upon request, can further mitigate cost increases or even lead to a reduction in overhead.
“If people are concerned about the cost of paper straws … ultimately, a world and an ocean that’s straw-less is better than one with any kind of straw in it,” Elkjer said. “I would recommend they do straws upon request no matter what, and typically by doing that, even when doing a paper straw initiative, they will see a decrease in their cost.”
Michael Bell, a manager at Body Glove Cruises in Kailua-Kona, adopted a similar view when six years ago he watched a strong wind carry a customer’s plastic-based food and drink implements over the side of the boat and into the water.
He said for him, that was the last straw, so to speak, and since that day he’s been working to rid Body Glove of all plastic material.
On busy days, his company doles out about 150 straws total. Over the course of a year, the switch to paper straws computes to about a $550 cost increase. It’s a bill, he said, Body Glove is not only happy to pay, but actually views in some ways as a long-term investment — one in more than just the environment.
“The ocean is what keeps us pretty much in business, so if we don’t treat it right, we won’t be in business much longer,” Bell said. “Honestly, it’s the cost of doing business. We’ve just got to do what’s right, and if that’s what it is, then that’s what we’ve got to pay.”
According to the National Park Service, about half a billion straws are used by Americans every day.
Several restaurants remain opposed to government intervention into their businesses or any mandates on what types of products they can or can’t use.
In testimony offered opposing SB 2285, Michael Miller, director of operations at Tiki’s Grill &Bar in Waikiki, argued the onus should be placed in part on the customer to make sure their plastics actually find a trash can, as well as on local government to better manage waste receptacles.
“During the beach clean up the issue (was) not the straws, cigarette butts, beverage lids, paper plates (or) bottle caps but rather the user of said items not being held accountable for throwing it away, and also the problem with overflowing trash cans and missing trash can lids,” Miller wrote.
Testimony attributed to Victor Lim, legislative chair of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, made similar assertions.
But Nakoa Nelson-Riley of One Aloha Shave Ice pointed out that even when plastic hits the trash bins, it still ends up in landfills. He said his vision is to one day operate an establishment that doesn’t use any disposable products, even environmentally friendly ones made of paper.
“People can come in, sit down, relax, enjoy a dessert and then go instead of grab-and-go takeout, because that’s still energy going into the ground,” he explained. “But (a transition to paper products) is still a big first step toward malama the aina.”
SB 2285 has passed its second reading and has been referred to joint committee hearing before the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees. To remain alive, the bill would need to be passed and filed by the joint committee by March 2.