KAILUA-KONA — The food industry can be fickle, its purveyors’ profit margins precarious. As such, in the restaurant business, every cent really does count.
That’s one of several arguments trade organizations such as the Hawaii Restaurant Association and the Hawaii Food Industry Association use to oppose Senate Bill 2285, which would ban the use of plastic straws throughout the state and slap offenders with fines as well as community service, namely trash details in littered public spaces.These groups say it’s the bottom lines of small restaurant businesses the proposed regulation would hit hardest.
Yet several such establishments on Hawaii Island are nonetheless transitioning away from traditional plastic straws, despite expenses, to compostable paper straws.
Leilani Nelson-Riley, who co-owns One Aloha Shave Ice off Kuakini Highway with her husband, Nakoa, made the switch to paper straws a few months back.
“The environment is worth it,” Nelson-Riley said. “It’s the only one we have and we have to take care of it. Our world is getting filled with little pieces of plastic that we use for five minutes and throw away.”
“Our five minute-need will (linger) for thousands of years,” she continued. “We have to make that investment in our aina. We feel that’s worth every penny.”
Nelson-Riley’s every penny characterization is apt, considering that’s about what it costs per straw to shift from plastic to paper, although in most cases that hike represents a 100 percent increase in price.
Elizabeth Elkjer of Sustainable Island Products, a Hawaii Island business that provides environmentally-friendly straws, as well as several other such products, said the average plastic straw used for drinks costs about a penny. Her company’s paper straws sell for two.
Sold in 5,000-straw cases, the cost increase translates to about $50 per case, although Elkjer said bulk purchases can drive that cost differential down.
And a simple shift in policy, such as the one implemented by Hilton Waikoloa Village, which recently switched to paper straws and now only includes them with beverage orders upon request, can further mitigate cost increases or even lead to a reduction in overhead.
“If people are concerned about the cost of paper straws … ultimately, a world and an ocean that’s straw-less is better than one with any kind of straw in it,” Elkjer said. “I would recommend they do straws upon request no matter what, and typically by doing that, even when doing a paper straw initiative, they will see a decrease in their cost.”
According to the National Park Service, about half a billion straws are used by Americans every day.
Several restaurants remain opposed to government intervention into their businesses or any mandates on what types of products they can or can’t use.
In testimony opposing SB 2285, Michael Miller, director of operations at Tiki’s Grill & Bar in Waikiki, argued the onus should be placed in part on the customer to make sure their plastics find a trash can, as well as on local government to better manage waste receptacles.
“During the beach cleanup, the issue (was) not the straws, cigarette butts, beverage lids, paper plates (or) bottle caps but rather the user of said items not being held accountable for throwing it away, and also the problem with overflowing trash cans and missing trash can lids,” Miller wrote.
Testimony attributed to Victor Lim, legislative chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, made similar assertions.
But Nakoa Nelson-Riley of One Aloha Shave Ice pointed out that even when plastic hits the trash bins, it still ends up in landfills. He said his vision is to one day operate an establishment that doesn’t use any disposable products, even environmentally-friendly ones made of paper.
“People can come in, sit down, relax, enjoy a dessert and then go instead of grab-and-go takeout because that’s still energy going into the ground,” he explained. “But (a transition to paper products) is still a big first step toward malama the aina.”
SB 2285 passed its second reading and was referred to joint committee hearing before the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees. To remain alive, the bill would need to be passed and filed by the joint committee by March 2.
Email Max Dible at email@example.com.