A bill seeking to ban foam containers was shelved this session, despite sizable public support.
Most of the 615 submitted testimonies supported Senate Bill 1109, which would have prohibited the use of polystyrene foam products by food vendors starting in January 2020. The material is commonly used for coffee cups and takeout containers.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment, said the foam ban received the second highest number of public testimony submissions out of the 91 bills that came before his committee. The first was a pesticide buffer bill (SB 29) with roughly 700 testimonies.
Both failed to cross over to the House, despite their popularity with the public.
“Sometimes it takes five or six years for good bills to pass,” said Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo). “You can have everything going for you. You can have the science behind you. You can have the emotion behind you, the numbers behind you and still sometimes things don’t pass.”
Rafael Bergstrom, Surfrider Oahu chapter coordinator, said in a post on Facebook the result is an example of public voices not being heard in the lawmaking process.
“I don’t care what the issue is or which side you are on, if it brings about huge public engagement only to see it closed for debate by a few single people, then our democracy is not functioning properly,” he said.
Opponents of the bill were pleased with the result after arguing the ban would increase costs for consumers and hurt mom-and-pop restaurants.
“This government mandate would place an undue burden on grocers, restaurants, mom-and-pop establishments and others as their cost of business would increase,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, a nonprofit trade organization, in her written testimony. “Many businesses are already operating on a very thin profit margin.”
The foam ban failed to make it through the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health and the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Sen. Roz Baker (D, South Maui-West Maui), chairwoman of the Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee, said Tuesday, “Public comment is always taken into account,” but she decided not to move forward with the bill based on the information provided in the state Department of Health’s testimony.
The Department of Health, which would be responsible for establishing rules tied to the ban, recommended putting off the state legislation to allow counties the opportunity to decide whether to implement their own bans.
“This issue should be the province of the individual counties to include different definitions, parameters and prohibitions as each county sees fit to adopt,” Baker said.
Sen. Jill Tokuda (D, Kaneohe-Ahuimanu), chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Baker said the issue should be taken up with the counties because of the efforts underway on different islands for diverting trash and banning foam, noting the system on Oahu disposes of all single-use food containers and turns them into energy at HPOWER, the city’s waste-to-energy facility. The Maui County Council is expected to soon revisit a proposed ordinance to ban polystyrene products.
On Oahu, a study conducted by the city’s Department of Environmental Services found that most of the cities that now have foam bans do not have waste-to-energy, relying on recycling and composting to divert waste from landfills.
Environmentalists had galvanized support for the foam bill and encouraged individuals to testify, said Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Ocean Pointe-Iroquois Point), one of the senators who introduced the bill.
“The environmentalists have a large base and have access to many individuals and many emails,” he said. “Many of these individuals either sent in emails or came in (and) testified … so you have the lopsided number, so to speak.”
In February, the foam ban drew a crowd of 321 people to the Capitol to voice their support, along with environmental organizations and food vendors.
That level of turnout “doesn’t happen all of the time,” Espero said, adding that it’s not only the number of emails or people that changes the outcome, it’s the arguments.
“Do we just base it on numbers? No, we don’t,” he said. “We vet the bills properly. Sometimes there is just differences of opinion, or legislators see things in their own lenses.”
A dozen high school students joined environmentalists at the state Capitol in February to support the ban.
Kaiser High teacher Paul Balazs, who brought some of his students to testify, said the results were “disheartening.”
“After taking the students to the Capitol, I saw them re-enter the classroom with so much pride,” he said. “They were in a lot of ways more aware of themselves and their voice. … Hearing, however, that the bills had died left many of them with an empty feeling — not so much a feeling of lost hope or even the tightrope of cynicism that many environmentalists walk every day. They felt severely let down — not by themselves, but by the State of Hawaii and the lawmakers we elected to lead this state.”
Espero said he expects to see the bill in the future. “We will try again.”