PODCAST: Hold the plastic! City rules on single-use foodware to take effect
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Your plate lunch is about to change.
After a lengthy pandemic-related delay, the city’s ban on foam plate lunch containers along with disposable plastic food, drink and other serviceware is set to take effect on Sept. 6 ― and eateries are gearing up.
Under the ordinance, banned plastics include traditional petroleum-based types that are “fossil-fuel derived.”
Compliant products include bioplastics made from organic materials.
“We were able to meet with a lot of the distributors just to ensure that products were available,” said Henry Gabriel, the city’s Recycling Program Branch chief. “We’re not going back. So we have to transition.”
While parts of the law ― like only distributing utensils upon request ― began in 2021, an extension was passed in March to allow restaurants and vendors to continue using polystyrene foam and plastic food ware until Sept. 5. Officials said the extension was largely due to pandemic-related shipping and supply issues that have since improved.
But the transition is more than swapping stock for businesses. The compliant materials come at a price.
Listen to more of the conversation below:
“The only real concern is the cost,” said Chris Shimabukuro, manager of his family-run plate lunch eatery, Koala Moa in Kalihi.
Shimabukuro said Koala Moa used compostable boxes when the city ordinance first passed but switched back to foam containers when the ban’s implementation date was pushed out.
The business is currently using compliant utensils.
“Styrofoam, you can get like 150 containers for 20 bucks. But the compostables, if you want to get 150 it’s going to cost you 40 bucks. Anywhere from $40 to $60, depending on the type of compostable container,” he said.
Shimabukuro said he does support the law if it helps the environment. Other businesses agree.
Kevin Young, co owner of Egghead Cafe, said customers like to see eco-friendly products.
“Supporting the environment, we believe it will help save our next generation,” Young said, adding that the restaurant is fully using fiber and bio-based takeout materials.
“The biggest challenge is definitely the costs. Especially now with [the] pandemic, everything, all the costs now, not just the takeout supply, it’s also food costs, went up … double,” he said.
And eateries say those increased prices will likely be passed on to customers.
Young said Egghead has increased its prices to offset the cost of compliant products. Shimabukuro added that while he would love to not raise prices, he think it’s impossible not to “in this environment.”
Aside from costs, restaurateurs said finding the right replacements has been an experimental process.
“It doesn’t absorb the water. It prevents spill,” Shimabukuro said, of the traditional foam takeout containers.
“With food delivery like Uber Eats and DoorDash, by the time the food gets there, the box may get soggy,” Young added, of some bio-based types. “So we try to find different brands of boxes, different types of material.”
Products under the city ordinance range from cocktail skewers to bento grass.
The law, however, does not apply to prepackaged food and drink. According to the city, prepackaged items are those that were prepared and packaged prior to being provided for sale.
Businesses may apply for temporary exemptions from the law if they show sufficient need.
If the city Department of Environmental Services determines an establishment is a repeat offender of the law, the business can face up to $1,000 for each day of violation. Inspections, meanwhile, will be complaint-driven.
And, Gabriel added, fines are not the goal.
“We’re not out there to fine people. We’re out there to educate people to help them comply,” Gabriel said, with education efforts including sending mailers to restaurants and increased social media reminders.
The first page of the law cites marine pollution, “much of it plastic,” as a reason for the ban on single-use plastics.
But will the compliant products solve the problem?
Many are labeled compostable, but that doesn’t mean you can throw them in your backyard compost pile.
According to the U.S. EPA, unless labeled suitable for home composting, plant-based plastics need to be processed in an industrial composting facility to properly break down.
Hawaii doesn’t have one.
The process takes place in a controlled environment with higher temperatures than homemade compost bins and moisture levels that allow microbes to thrive.
The agency also says compostable plastics are not meant to be recycled as they can cause contamination when mixed with petroleum-based plastics.
If disposed of correctly, Gabriel says these products will go to the same place regular plastic products go: the H-Power waste-to-energy plant, where most of Oahu’s residential and general commercial trash is disposed.
Because they might not sufficiently decompose on their own, bio-based products could still end up polluting the oceans along with their plastic counterparts.
But Gabriel hopes the law will spark a shift in food ware production.
“If this spawns into becoming less dependent on fossil fuels, to me, which is the overall goal, that is really what I would like to see,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel said other goals could include boosting reuse initiatives and generating less garbage.
Restaurants are also thinking of ways they can minimize waste.
“Maybe people just got to get used to carrying their own silverware in their bags or in their cars to use,” Shimabukuro said.
“I’ve had a few customers bring in their own containers. I’m a little wary of that, because I can’t control how clean the containers are coming from home. But, I mean, that would be an option. I think that would probably help the environment even more.”
To learn more about the city’s Disposable Food Ware Ordinance, click here.
For more on the conversation, listen to Episode 7 of Repairing Earth, “Episode 7: Your plate lunch is about to go green,” on the HNN website or anywhere you get your podcasts.
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