Will This Be The Year For A Styrofoam Ban?

A Senate bill to ban polystyrene food containers is slated for its first hearing Wednesday.
Honolulu Civil Beat - February 6, 2017
By: 
Natanya Friedheim

The quintessential Hawaii plate lunch comes with meat atop two scoops of rice next to mac salad, with sauce overflowing from the cracks of a styrofoam takeout clam.

This year lawmakers hope a bill will force vendors to replace those single-use containers with more environmentally friendly ones.

Scheduled for a joint committee hearing Wednesday, Senate Bill 1109 would ban food vendors from using styrofoam and other polystyrene containers.

“From an environmental standpoint, it makes sense to move forward on (the bill),” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee.

The committee is expected to review the bill Wednesday along with the public safety committee, chaired by Sen. Clarence Nishihara.

Gabbard introduced a similar bill in 2013, but it died after its first hearing.

If signed into law, the ban would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

“The environmental impact is very severe because there are so many creatures affected by it,” said Stuart Coleman of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helped draft this year’s Senate bill.

Sitting in landfills or littered on land, polystyrene foam products leach a byproduct — styrene — into land and water, according to the bill. A known carcinogen, the chemical can poison birds, fish and other ocean animals when ingested.

Hawaii residents generate more trash than the national average, about 6.6 pounds of waste per resident per day compared to the national average of 4.4 pounds per day.

That’s especially problematic for polystyrene products. The light material flies away in the wind and ends up on the side of the highway and in oceans.

Worldwide, of all plastics thrown away only 5 percent are effectively recycled while 40 percent ends up in landfills, according to report published last year by the World Economic Forum.

Locally, seabirds are being “devastated by plastic,” says Margaret Wille, co-chair of the Hawaii Democratic Party’s legislative committee. This bill, along with bills to ban oxybenzone sunscreens and bills regarding pesticides are priorities for the Hawaii Democratic Party this year, she said. 

Of the 30 testimonies submitted so far on the bill, Gabbard said 26 are in support of the ban.

“Hawaii’s main economic engine is tourism,” Coleman said. “We can’t have foam broken apart and strewn all over the island littering it.”

Hawaii Food Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council opposed a similar Senate bill in 2013, citing faults in biodegradable alternatives to polystyrene containers.

“This bill makes the false assumption that products that would replace polystyrene are somehow manufactured in a vacuum without the use of any raw materials, energy, or water, or fuel to deliver the product,” Lauren Zirbel, the association’s executive director, wrote in testimony then.

The organization also cited concerns that such a ban would put a financial burden on local food establishments.

According to the bill, the Department of Health would issue a warning to vendors that continue to use styrofoam containers. Vendors could be fined $200 if they don’t comply, and fines of $500 thereafter.

Zirbel did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Last year, San Francisco implemented an extensive ban on polystyrene products. A statewide ban died in California’s state senate in 2011.

Since 2009, six similar bills have been introduced in legislative sessions in Hawaii. Most never made it to a committee hearing.

This year’s Senate bill has no companion measure, though a House bill would ban polystyrene food containers in state-owned and state-run facilities, including public schools.

“Sometimes it takes one, two, three years to pass a bill,” said Sen. Will Espero, who introduced this year’s Senate bill. “It depends on the sentiment of key legislatures and chairs.”