County Council kills bill banning foam food containers

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HILO — John Matson warned them.


HILO — John Matson warned them.

“You are going to hear a bunch of left-wing do-gooders parade up here, telling you all these facts about what Styrofoam does to our environment, how it negatively affects our wildlife in multiple ways, all the toxic chemicals it releases into the air, how there are totally usable and affordable alternatives, blah, blah, blah,” Matson, of Waiakea Uka, said.

“Don’t fall for it, you guys,” he added.

Matson was being facetious, but even testifying Friday supposedly against Bill 140, a ban on polystyrene food containers, he was in an absolute minority. Dozens wearing their olive green “hold the foam” T-shirts testified in support of banning the so-called “Styrofoam,” but only one person truly testified against it.

The council ended up deadlocking on an East Hawaii-West Hawaii divide, a 4-4 vote that kills the bill, at least until next year when a new council comes into office. Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, the council chair, was absent. He had previously voted against the bill in committee.

Puna Councilman Danny Paleka, a reluctant yes during a 5-4 vote last month, on Friday voted no, joining fellow Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan and Hilo Councilmen Dennis “Fresh” Onishi and Aaron Chung.

“Don’t play games with people’s money and make bans,” Paleka said. “(Retailers) are not the ones throwing it in the water.”

Proponents of the bill cite environmental damage, particularly to seabirds and marine life, and the use of petroleum products to manufacture the polystyrene.

Opponents have been shy about airing their concerns in public, but they include the added cost of recyclable containers, loss of jobs for an Oahu-based polystyrene plant and the loss of individual choice.

Dexter Yamada, whose Oahu food container manufacturing and distribution company employs about 100 people, was the only testifier in opposition at Friday’s meeting. This was his third trip to the council to raise his opposition.

He said using locally produced polystyrene cuts down on the number of containers that must be imported to the island, which often cost two to three times more. He said food-grade polystyrene has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and has been in use for 50 years while alternatives haven’t been tested.

“What are the alternatives to food-grade polystyrene which has been used for 50 years,” Yamada asked.

Sarah Rafferty, of Kailua-Kona, has collected 5,064 signatures of people asking for a ban on the foam food containers.

“In an election year, it’s prudent to listen to your constituents and not the corporate lobbyists with a clear conflict of interest,” Rafferty said.

“The whole idea here is to really do something good for the quality of life on our land,” said bill sponsor Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille. “This isn’t going to change the world; it’s just one step forward.”

Onishi pointed to a recent survey of ocean debris that found most of the pollution is coming from other countries, and not from the island itself.

“It’s not the food vendors, it’s the people here that buy the product and don’t dispose of it properly,”Onishi said. “People who litter gonna litter.”

“There’s litter and there’s litter,” Wille responded, “and this seems to be the most harmful.”

“Sometimes it takes a ban to send a stronger message,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff.

Bill 140 would have banned polystyrene foam takeout containers starting July 1, 2018, to give the county time to get a new composting facility up and running and to require the use of compostable or recyclable food service ware.

The bill included a number of exemptions for food prepared off-island, raw food, and emergencies and financial hardship. Penalties from $10 to $1,000, depending on the number of prior violations and how many people are being served at festivals and community events, were reduced to $10 to $600, in an amendment passed Friday.

Ilagan called the bill, “the stick instead of the carrot.” He and other opponents said the 3 cents to 10 cents per container extra cost for a recyclable container will hurt businesses’ bottom line and hurt consumers when the costs are passed along.

“We should go out and educate the different retail establishments and the public, and so we can move together as a community,” Ilagan said.

A group of environmental and charitable organizations and individuals — Surfrider Foundation Hawaii Chapters, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Dr. Douglas McCauley of University of California Santa Barbara Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation and Kokua Hawaii Foundation— offered to enter a public-private partnership by contributing $15,000 and volunteer time to help educate the public about polystyrene alternatives.

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