Council allows non-recyclable plastics as polystyrene alternative

A polystyrene takeout container is discarded an the side of Kuakini Highway, file photo. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)

HILO — Amid promises to create future laws curbing the growing waste stream heading to the county’s soon-to-be sole landfill, the County Council on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill loosening restrictions on the allowable plastic alternatives to polystyrene.

Most polystyrene, popularly known as “Styrofoam,” food containers will remain banned under a law going into effect July 1.


The current measure, Bill 74, which faces one more reading, will allow the substitution of plastics the county doesn’t recycle. That includes the No. 5 plastic “clamshell” containers.

“We have a bigger problem of our waste-stream management. This doesn’t attend to that but it doesn’t ignore it either,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, the bill sponsor. “Our intention is to come back and do something on a grander scale in planning for the future. We have to do something different. This is to correct something in the meantime while we attend to that.”

The county plans to close the Hilo landfill in September, requiring all of the county’s garbage — some 500-600 tons per day — to be trucked to the West Hawaii landfill at Puuanahulu.

The polystyrene bill changes are supported by the Hawaii Food Industry Association, Hawaii Restaurant Association and local retailers, who say they favor reducing polystyrene but they’re having difficulty finding suitable recyclable alternatives now that Hawaii County isn’t recycling many plastics because the China market dried up.

“As we find a suitable alternative, we will change, but right now we support only the ban on polystyrene,” Derek Kurisu, executive vice president of KTA Super Stores, told the council at a June 3 hearing.

But some environmentalists and producers of earth-friendly alternatives remain concerned.

“If we truly wish to help reduce the solid-waste and plastic pollution (aka marine debris!) problem on island, we won’t jump from one toxic single-use plastic (foam) container to another (non-foam) plastic container,” Megan Lamson, president of Hawaii Wildlife Fund, wrote in testimony.

John Elkjer, CEO of Sustainable Island Products, echoed that sentiment.

“This seems to be a diversion in that direction in allowing a trade from a foam to another plastic,” Elkjer said.

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas praised Lamson’s work and pledged to do what she can to reduce the “onslaught of perpetual opala on our shores.”

“I am heartened that we’ve reached this point,” Villegas said. “I look forward to working together and continue to navigate our way to a healthier community.”

Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder called the bill “a great first step.”

“Everyone agrees we’d like to see less waste going to our landfill,” he said.

“This still doesn’t stop your average consumer from going to Walmart and picking up a stack of polystyrene plates,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder added.

The law going into effect July 1 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 new law doesn’t cover straws, lids or cutlery. 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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