Proposed polystyrene container ban advances

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A divided County Council on Monday advanced a bill banning polystyrene take-out containers starting in 2018, but only after a heated discussion about potential health hazards and environmental damage from the breakdown of said containers.

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A divided County Council on Monday advanced a bill banning polystyrene take-out containers starting in 2018, but only after a heated discussion about potential health hazards and environmental damage from the breakdown of said containers.

The council Environmental Management Committee, which includes all nine council members, voted 5-4 to forward Bill 140 to the council with a positive recommendation. The bill, banning the material popularly known as “Styrofoam,” faces two more votes before going to the mayor for signature or veto.

“I think this is a step forward,” said bill sponsor Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille. “We could be doing more, but it’s something that we as an island can do.”

Wille worked with Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd to address concerns from the public and the administration. The amended bill, while addressing those concerns, ended up raising new questions.

Proponents of Bill 140 included the environmental groups Surfrider Foundation, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and Sierra Club as well as local businesses that sell or use environmentally friendly alternatives to the food containers. Sarah Rafferty of Kailua-Kona said she’s gathered 4,700 signatures on a petition urging a countywide ban on single-use expanded polystyrene containers.

More than 40 proponents testified during a meeting earlier this month, with only two testifiers publicly opposing the bill.

But Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung rattled off a long list of Hilo businesses opposing the bill who since have sent letters to council members. Topping their concerns are the added cost of environmentally friendly containers, he said.

“These are local guys trying to make a go, and they’re being overlooked,” Chung said.

Chung, along with fellow Hilo Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan and Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha voted no.

Dissenters disputed health concerns about ingesting styrene, said the bill unfairly targeted small local businesses and asserted the danger to marine life is caused by litterers, not the vendors.

“Nobody talks about the littering problem,” Onishi said. “We’re penalizing our food vendors because of people like us.”

As far as health issues are concerned, they’re negligible, according to an expert.

“The biggest danger is they overheat it and burn their mouth on the food,” said George Cruzan, an expert appearing before the council. “The banning of foam is not going to alter the health effects of styrene.”

Cruzan said human absorption of styrene from foam containers represents less than 30 percent of styrene. More comes from automobile exhaust, coffee and cinnamon as well as certain fruits and vegetables, he said.

“I’m not the Department of Health. I am in charge of rubbish,” Leithead Todd said to questions from Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan about potential health risks of eating from polystyrene plates or reheating food in them.

Ilagan questioned why the state Department of Health required bentos in polystyrene containers be heated to 140 to 160 degrees before being sold.

“The basis of this bill is to prevent litter and polystyrene foam from getting into marine waters,” Leithead Todd said.

Puna Councilman Danny Paleka, who said he’s seen polystyrene inside fish he’s caught, voted yes after expressing his concern that the bill singles out local businesses. If the material is going to be banned, it all should be banned, he said.

“Out-of-state vendors can still sell their products and still pollute our oceans,” Paleka said. “There’s the problem I see with this bill, it’s the lack of equality.”

The ban doesn’t apply to items packaged outside the county or containers for raw meats or poultry.

“I think this is the very first step. Instead of coming up with an outright ban that we take this step,” responded South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David. “It may not seem fair, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Among the changes Leithead Todd suggested were delaying the effective date from Jan. 1, 2018, to July 1, 2018, to give the county time to get a new composting facility up and running and to require the use of compostable or recyclable food service ware.

Leithead Todd also added exemptions for emergencies and financial hardship.

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Penalties from $100 to $1,000 also were added to the bill, depending on the number of prior violations and how many people are being served at festivals and community events.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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