Hawaii, a state with a $17-billion tourism industry and a persistent plastic pollution problem, is moving toward a groundbreaking ban on polystyrene food containers.
While hundreds of cities and counties have passed local ordinances eliminating polystyrene in food containers or in other uses, no legislation has so far been successful at the state level in the United States. A similar effort failed recently in California, while Maryland's general assembly is now also considering legislation that was introduced in early 2018. Internationally, a few nations have imposed strong regulations against the importation and use of polystyrene, including Zimbabwe and the Seychelles, which has banned the use of all disposable plastic items.
All plastic debris is a concern for marine and coastal health because it does not biodegrade and can end up polluting beaches and the ocean, where it breaks up into tiny pieces that can be eaten by marine life. Lightweight polystyrene foam is particularly worrisome in an island state such as Hawaii because it easily blows out of trash cans and eventually out to sea.
"The ban would be a positive step forward in preventing more plastic debris from affecting Hawaiian shores and waters," said Mark Manuel, Pacific Islands Marine Debris Program regional coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Honolulu.
Last Monday, spectators packed a small room in the Hawaii State Capitol building and watched as five senators read public testimony from supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 2498. This is the first time in 10 years that a statewide polystyrene foam prohibition bill has moved through Hawaii's Senate, according to the Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter, and follows bans passed in Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii last year.
After the hearing, the members of the Senate's Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health committee unanimously voted to move the bill forward. If passed by the full Senate, and the House passes its own version, the provision would take effect January 1st, 2019, if signed into law by the governor.
The proposed ban wouldn't forbid all uses of the polystyrene foam, commonly called by the trade name Styrofoam, just the kind used in food service businesses. However, because so many food vendors in Hawaii distribute polystyrene food containers daily, supporters say the ban could greatly reduce plastic litter across the islands and in the surrounding waters. (The popular Hawaiian plate lunch, for instance, is commonly served up in polystyrene containers.) Senator Stanley Chang, a co-sponsor of the bill, said polystyrene foam is one of the most common sources of litter and marine debris in Hawaii. A 2014 study found that polystyrenefoams are the most commonly seen visible plastic material at sea.
"The polystyrene debris is affecting the quality of our marine environment and harming our wildlife, both in our major population centers and as far away as the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where birds and aquatic life often die because of their consumption of human-generated debris," Chang said.
Takeout container pollution is particularly dangerous to marine wildlife. The lightweight material easily breaks into pieces that can be eaten by animals, disrupting their digestive system and contaminating their blood with toxins.
Douglas McCauley, a University of California–Santa Barbara marine biologist, estimates that 98 percent of all albatross chicks found dead on the islands contain plastic, including polystyrene foam. He said Hawaii's polystyrene foam pollution is contributing to a mess "in a place that should be famous for generating sunsets, good waves, Mai Tais, and memories."
He said, "This ban is not going to fix the problem of plastic pollution in Hawaii, but it will be a big step in the right direction." McCauley also added: "It will cut back on a particularly insidious form of plastic pollution that is easy to replace and that is known to harm ocean wildlife."
Hawaii asks residents to dispose of polystyrene foam in the trash. In Oahu, polystyrene is burned along with other garbage at H-Power, its waste-to-energy plant. Elsewhere on Hawaii, it is sent to a landfill. Polystyrene can technically be recycled, but few recycling centers handle the material and there are none in Hawaii.
Opponents of the ban—including the American Chemistry Council, Hawaii Restaurant Association, Hawaii Food Industry Association, Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, and local polystyrene manufacturer KYD—argue efforts to deal with plastic pollution should focus on litter prevention. They contend that switching to eco-friendly food containers would be prohibitively expensive for small businesses, and that alternate materials would not be sturdy enough to hold classic Hawaiian plate lunches—which are often served hot and drenched in sauces.
At the hearing Monday, opponents to the legislation submitted comments, but they were outnumbered by individuals, scientists, environmental organizations, food vendors, and companies. Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter, a major supporter of the ban, pushed the public to post testimony supporting the bill on social media. In Hawaii's public schools, teachers asked dozens of students to send letters to their senators. Only one individual—a Hawaii state resident—submitted written testimony in opposition to the bill, stating that polystyrene is "practical" and that the state should instead focus on solving its homelessness problem in order to reduce littering.
"This is a bold bill, but it is way overdue," McCauley said. "Hawaii is usually a global leader on oceans. People in Hawaii know, perhaps better than any other place on the planet, that ocean health and human health are intertwined. This has been a part of Hawaiian knowledge systems for thousands of years."