Polystyrene bills postponed after much public comment

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HILO — More than 40 people, most supporting a ban on polystyrene foam food containers, on Tuesday came before the County Council Committee on Environmental Management.

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HILO — More than 40 people, most supporting a ban on polystyrene foam food containers, on Tuesday came before the County Council Committee on Environmental Management.

Choosing between a menu of two bills — one banning the so-called “Styrofoam” containers outright and one conducting an islandwide survey and educational campaign — most testifiers chose the former in almost three hours of testimony.

“As for educating the public, don’t bother,” said Elizabeth Weatherford, testifying from Pahoa. “The best education is to lead by example.”

The committee ultimately recessed the meeting until May 16 and postponed the measures as the hour grew late.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille’s Bill 140 would ban polystyrene foam for take-out containers and plate lunches starting in 2018.

“This all goes to how you balance legitimate economic interests,” Wille said.

Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan’s Bill 204 would launch an education campaign tailored to businesses, nonprofit organizations and the general public. It was referred to the Environmental Management Commission.

“The government should first use the carrot rather than the stick,” Ilagan said.

Wille worked with Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd to address concerns from the public and the administration.

Among the changes Leithead Todd suggested were delaying the effective date from Jan. 1, 2018, to July 1, 2018, to give the county time to get a new composting facility up and running, to require the use of compostable or recyclable food service ware and to clarify the ban doesn’t apply to items packaged outside the county or containers for raw meats or poultry.

Penalties from $100 to $1,000 have also been added to the bill, depending on the number of prior violations and how many people are being served at festivals and community events.

Proponents of Bill 140 included the environmental groups Surfrider Foundation, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and Sierra Club as well as local businesses that sell or use environmentally friendly alternatives to the food containers. Among them is the Sheraton Kona, whose representative Sherry Carpenter told the council that there was minimal cost when the resort’s three restaurants switched from polystyrene containers for its 100,000 annual takeouts.

Christopher Kibler, environmental protection specialist at District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment was one of the experts brought in to discuss the issue. Kibler helped about 400 businesses in the district transition from polystyrene containers. He said once the alternatives were explained, the transition went smoothly.

“We didn’t get a lot of negativity,” Kibler said.

Almost 100 cities and towns in the United States ban expanded polystyrene containers, said Douglas McCauley, a marine scientist testifying from Kona.

McCauley and other scientists detailed how expanded polystyrene, known as EPS, finds its way into the food chain when it breaks into little pieces, contaminates the ocean and is eaten by fish, such as mahimahi.

“This is a disturbing observation both as a scientist and as a consumer of fish,” McCauley said.

Many of the testifiers drew parallels between the proposed polystyrene ban and a 2012 countywide ban on plastic bags. That ordinance was also initially opposed by some businesses.

“We’re very pleased at what we have done to eliminate the plastic bag in this island,” said Joyce O’Conor, testifying from Waimea. “Please expand this commitment.”

“This should be a no-brainer. This should be a complete act of common sense,” said Puaena Ahn, testifying from Waimea. “This is the same crybabying that went on before the plastic bag ban and everything is going fine.”

Susan Rafferty of Kailua-Kona said she’s gathered 4,700 signatures on a petition urging a countywide ban on single-use expanded polystyrene containers.

Two people testified against the ban.

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Polystyrene is manufactured in the state, putting people to work and avoiding the cost of shipping products to the Islands, said Dexter Yamada, whose Oahu food container manufacturing and distribution company employs about 100 people. He said using locally produced polystyrene cuts down on the amount of containers that must be imported into the island, which often cost two to three times more.

“This is a litter management problem,” said Yamada. “This will only change the type of litter in landfills, along roadsides and in waterways.”

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