Polystyrene ban coming

  • Ann Chau, director of Western regional sales for World Centric, displays alternatives to polystyrene foam food containers at a public hearing Tuesday in Hilo. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The convergence of two unrelated events has food vendors crying foul and may lead to changes in the county’s polystyrene ban.

The ban on polystyrene — popularly known as Styrofoam — was passed in 2017 but doesn’t go into effect until July 1.

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The 2017 law allowed both compostable or recyclable plastic containers as substitutes to polystyrene. But the county Dec. 1 stopped accepting plastic “clamshell” containers for recycling because there is no longer a market to recycle them.

That’s led Council Chairman Aaron Chung, of Hilo, to begin work on a new bill to better accommodate the vendors.

“Everyone was led to believe it was a polystyrene ban,” Chung said about the original bill, which he’d opposed. “Now it’s a ban on plastics. A lot of people who weren’t affected are now affected.”

A public hearing Tuesday about rules implementing the current law quickly turned into questions about what may change. A second public hearing is slated for 2 p.m. today at the West Hawaii Civic Center.

“The word on the street is that the ordinance has been compromised,” said Catherine Spina.

She and a half-dozen other testifiers pushed for the law to be implemented as it stands.

“There’s been plenty of time for businesses to find alternatives,” said Cory Harden. “Some alternatives were eliminated when county recycling stopped taking certain plastics, but that happened seven months before the ban start date.”

Harden said the law allows temporary hardship exemptions that could be used if recycling policies change.

Two alternative container representatives also asked that the law remain intact.

“Let’s just start weaning ourselves from petroleum products,” said Ann Chau, director of Western regional sales for World Centric, while spreading out on a table alternatives to polystyrene foam food containers.

County Recycling Coordinator George Hayducsko said the purpose of the public hearing is to go over the draft rules based on the current law.

“We don’t know what’s going to be coming,” Hayducsko said.

Chung said the bill he’s working on won’t change the language banning polystyrene. And, he said, it’s unlikely to come up for another month, at least until the council finishes its work on the budget. That has to be complete by June 30.

Hayducsko assured the testifiers they’d have at least two more opportunities to weigh in on any changes to the law when it comes up before the council.

Meanwhile, starting July 1, polystyrene food containers will be banned at Hawaii Island eateries and county facilities.

The new law applies to commercial restaurants and fast-food establishments, food vendors at county functions and on county property and members of the public who secure permits to use county-run pavilions, parks, cabins and other facilities.

The county rule will require the use of recyclables or compostables certified by the Biodegradable Product Institute, which carries a BPI logo. The products are compostable in an industrial composting facility, such as one Hawaii County has planned to open by July 1, 2020.

The new law doesn’t cover straws, lids or cutlery, but the county is encouraging businesses to switch to environmentally preferred alternatives, which are also readily available. Also excluded are coolers or ice chests intended for reuse.

Regulation of the ban will be solely complaint-driven.

Fines range from $10 to $600 per violation, depending on whether the violation is part of a special event and the size of the special event. A written warning will first be issued. Each sale or transfer of food in a polystyrene container counts as a single violation.

Items shipped into the state are covered by interstate commerce laws and thus are not easy to regulate. Food packaged outside the county as well as packaging for raw meat, fish and eggs that have not been further processed are exempt from the ban.

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In situations where compliance with the ordinance would result in undue hardship, the Environmental Management director may exempt a food vendor or county facility user from the requirements for a period not to exceed 180 days, under the law.

The draft rules are available at http://hawaiizerowaste.org/site-content/uploads/2019-04-09-Polystyrene-Foam-Ban-Proposed-Admin-Rules-DRAFT.pdf

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