Hold the plastic! City rules for single-use foods take effect after a long delay

Honolulu (@HawaiiNewsNow) – Your lunch plate is about to change.

After a long pandemic-related delay, the city’s ban on foam board lunch containers along with plastic food, drink and other service items is set to take effect on Sept. 6 — and restaurants are gearing up.

By law, plastics banned include traditional petroleum-based types “derived from fossil fuels.”

Compatible products include bioplastics made from organic materials.

“We were able to interview a lot of distributors just to make sure products were available,” said Henry Gabriel, branch president of the city’s recycling program. “We are not going back. So we have to move.”

While parts of the law – such as distributing utensils only on demand – began in 2021, an extension was passed in March to allow restaurants and vendors to continue using polystyrene foam and plastic utensils until September 5th. Officials said the extension is largely due to pandemic-related shipping and logistics issues, which have since improved.

But the transition is about more than just exchanging stock for companies. Compatible materials have a price.

“The only real concern is the cost,” said Chris Shimabukuro, manager of the family-run Koala Mua restaurant in Kalihi.

Shimabukuro said Koala Moa used the compostable bins when the city ordinance first passed but returned to the foam bins when the ban implementation date was pushed out.

The work currently uses compatible tools.

“Styrofoam, you can get 150 containers for $20. But compostable materials, if you want to get 150, it will cost you $40. Anywhere from $40 to $60, depending on the type of compostable container.”

Shimabukuro said he supports the law if it helps the environment. Other companies agree.

Egghead Café co-owner Kevin Young said customers love seeing the eco-friendly products.

“Supporting the environment, we believe it will help save our next generation,” Young said, adding that the restaurant makes full use of outdoor biomaterials and fibers.

‘The biggest challenge is definitely the costs. Especially now with [the] Pandemic, everything, all costs now, not just supply abroad, it’s also food costs, they’ve gone up… double,” he said.

Restaurants say those increased prices are more likely to pass on to customers.

Young said Egghead raised its prices to make up for the cost of compatible products. Shimabukuro added that while he would like not to raise prices, he believes it is impossible not to do so “in this environment”.

Aside from the costs, the restaurateurs said finding the right alternatives was an experimental process.

“It does not absorb water. It prevents spillage,” said Shimabukuro, of traditional foam eating containers.

“With food delivery like Uber Eats and DoorDash, by the time the food gets there, the box may get wet,” Young added, of some bio-based types. “So we try to find different brands of boxes and different types of materials.”

Products under city law range from cocktail skewers to pinto grass.

However, the law does not apply to packaged foods and drinks. According to the city, prepackaged items are those that have been prepared and packaged before being offered for sale.

Companies may apply for temporary exemptions from the law if they demonstrate a sufficient need.

If the city’s Department of Environmental Services determines that the facility is a repeat violation of the law, the company could face up to $1,000 for each violation day. Inspections, meanwhile, will be complaint-driven.

Gabriel added that fines are not the goal.

“We are not there to fine people. We are there to educate people to help them comply,” Gabriel said, with education efforts that include mailing out letters to restaurants and increasing social media reminders.

The front page of the law cites marine pollution, “mostly plastic,” as a reason to ban single-use plastics.

But will compatible products solve the problem?

Many of them are labeled as compostable, but that doesn’t mean you can toss them in the compost heap in your backyard.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, unless they are labeled suitable for home composting, plant plastics must be processed in an industrial composting facility to break them down properly.

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 that compostable plastics are not intended to be recycled because they can cause contamination when mixed with petroleum-based plastics.

If disposed of properly, Gabriel says these products will go to the same place that regular plastic products go: the H-Power waste-to-energy plant, where most of Oahu’s general residential and commercial waste is disposed of.

Since they may not degrade enough on their own, bio-products may end up polluting the oceans along with their plastic counterparts.

But Gabriel hopes the law will lead to a shift in the production of food commodities.

“If this becomes less dependent on fossil fuels, that’s the overall goal, that’s really what I’d like to see,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said other goals could include promoting reuse initiatives and generating less waste.

Restaurants are also thinking of ways to reduce waste.

“People may have used to carry their silverware in their bags or in their cars for use,” Shimabukuro said.

“I’ve had a few clients bring their own containers. I’m a little wary of that, because I can’t control how clean the containers coming in from the house are. But, I mean, that would be an option. I think this might help the environment more.”

To learn more about the city’s single-use dinnerware legislation, click here.

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