Marine Biologist/Writer/Surfer
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According to some estimates, plastics may outnumber fish in our oceans by 2050. Continued production and use of plastic bags certainly isn’t helping. Photo: Surfrider


The Inertia

On May 18, Maui County became the latest municipality to pass legislation outlawing the use of polystyrene foam food containers. Though over 100 cities and counties have passed similar legislation in the state of California alone, Maui County was the first in Hawaii to successfully pass the bill through the county council. The bill extends to the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and Kaho‘olawe, and prohibits the use and distribution of polystyrene foam containers by both food distributors and retailers.

Polystyrene foam (commonly referred to under the tradename “styrofoam”) is ubiquitous in Hawaii’s food industry, and over time it has become synonymous with the Hawaii’s staple “plate lunch.” Despite the fact that the original plate lunch was served on paper plates and covered in tin foil, the plastics and food retailers industry launched a statewide “Don’t Take Our Plate Lunch” campaign to discourage the legislation. Hawaii has the highest per capita use of polystyrene foam in the United States. Extrapolating from the City and County of Honolulu’s 2006 Waste Characterization Study, it is estimated that Hawaii generates an average of 44,500-65,965 pounds of polystyrene waste per day.

Despite the extensive use of polystyrene foam throughout the state, there are serious concerns with the product’s environmental impacts. As with other forms of plastic, polystyrene foam does not naturally biodegrade. It is instead broken down into smaller and smaller plastic pieces by the sun (photodegradation), and can persist in the environment for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Remarkably, these single-use containers are used, on average, only a few minutes before they are discarded.

Marine debris surveys on Maui have estimated that polystyrene foam constitutes about 9% of the island’s debris loads. Over a period from 2012-2015, the Maui-based Sharkastics project collected nearly 16,000 pieces of expanded polystyrene foam from Ka‘ehu Beach in Central Maui, averaging close to 400 pieces of polystyrene foam per monthly cleanup. Polystyrene foam is also ingested by marine species such as seabirds, sea turtles, and fish. Research from 2014 further found the chemical styrene (leached from polystyrene foam) present in beach sand samples from Oahu and seawater samples from Hawaii Island.

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As with Maui County’s successful plastic bag ban in 2011, the polystyrene foam food container ban is expected to decrease polystyrene foam litter. Eco-friendly alternatives to polystyrene foam are made from plant-based materials like recycled paper, bagasse, bamboo, and other renewable resources. As plant-based items, they will biodegrade in the environment and pose less of a threat to the environment and human welfare.

The biggest push back against the bill came from food vendors who insisted that the cost of polystyrene foam alternatives would be prohibitive. On the contrary, polystyrene foam alternatives are increasingly comparative in price. An economic impact analysis from San Jose, California reveals that the cost difference per container is about $0.01 to $0.07.

Proponents of the bill have also continually reiterated that any additional cost of alternative products is a “passed through” cost to the consumer (e.g. an additional 10 cents added to the final bill). Some restaurants already charge if customers order take-out. If cost is truly prohibitive, the Maui bill includes a hardship exemption.

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The movement away from single-use plastic items in Hawaii – a state surrounded by ocean – will continue to gain momentum. In the past year, the grassroots Ocean Friendly Restaurants Hawaii initiative has certified over 100 restaurants state-wide that have taken steps to reduce their environmental impact (including reducing their single-use plastic consumption).

The issue of single-use plastic pollution is complicated, thus requiring a holistic approach and multi-pronged solution. While products bans are therefore not the only solution, they are a critical step in the right direction – especially for an island community that is critically dependent on a healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems.

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