In the coming weeks, the nine members of the newly elected and inaugurated Maui County Council will hear the second reading of a bill that could transform the production, consumption and disposal of a specific product: Polystyrene.
Popularly known as Styrofoam (which is actually the product line copyrighted by Dow Chemical), polystyrene has undoubtedly been useful in its conquest of consumer tastes. It insulates packages, it keeps coffee and soup warm, it stores food, it's a cheap petroleum product, and it's durable.
Unfortunately, the downsides of polystyrene have become increasingly apparent.
First, polystyrene doesn't break down in a human time scale. It can persist for hundreds and thousands of years. The best-case scenario is that we sink polystyrene into a landfill, but because it doesn't biodegrade, it persists for centuries and even millennia, compromising the soil, water and air.
Second, polystyrene does break down into thousands of tiny pieces, infiltrating the entire surrounding environment. At beaches all over Maui County, micro-plastics, including polystyrene, litter the landscape. When ingested by birds, turtles and fish, they cause sickness and death, and increase toxicity in the food chain.
Third, polystyrene has a high carbon dioxide footprint. As a plastic-based petroleum product, its existence depends on the burning of fossil fuels. Global warming is real, our consumption habits have consequences and polystyrene has an environmental cost.
The bill currently before the new County Council could be a game-changer for Maui County, and for the State of Hawaii. Polystyrene bans already exist in San Francisco (2006) and Seattle (2007), and these major metropolitan areas, with populations bigger than all of Hawaii, have managed the transition successfully. A similar ban came close to passing on the Big Island, but the County Council there deadlocked at a 4-4 vote, and the tiebreaking council member sneakily neglected to appear in the Council Chamber that day.
The ban has its detractors. Local businesses legitimately wonder if they can bear the cost of transitioning to compostable containers. Consumers worry whether they can manage the costs of the transition to more sustainable materials. Elected representatives wonder if there are viable alternative products - if it's worth rocking the boat.
There are good answers to these concerns, and good reasons for Maui to get behind this bill to support the transition from polystyrene to compostable containers.
First, for business owners, the cost of using compostable containers is manageable and can be passed on to consumers. In a survey conducted by Pacific Business News, over 80 percent of respondents said they'd be willing to pay 25 cents more for a more environmentally friendly meal. Consumers want to do the right thing, and they're willing to pay for it.
Second, for consumers, the cost is manageable. The added cost of a compostable to-go container is between 10 and 25 cents each. A quarter is the upper end of the cost, if one factors in fork, knife, spoon, cup, napkin, lid and straw. For a consumer who eats lunch out most days of the week for an entire year using disposable products, the entire added annual fee would be about $20, and that would keep over 200 polystyrene clamshells out of a landfill.
Third, for everyone, there are quality alternatives, and the market continues to shift. Seattle is the coffee capital of the nation, and as Mark Twain said, the coldest winter you can spend is a summer in San Francisco, yet hot drinks and hot soups continue to be made and delivered every day for hundreds of thousands of people in those cities.
Finally, Hawaii is unique, and Maui is No Ka Oi. We have a responsibility to reflect a sustainable society, and if we can't strive in that direction, it's harder for us to complain about the trash washing up on our beaches. Millions of people visit Maui every year, in search of a clean, pristine and sustainable paradise. If we can grow in this direction, Maui will enhance its green credentials, which has a marketable value, and locals will benefit from a cleaner environment.
The outgoing council passed this bill on its first reading unanimously, and that included some more centrist members like Mike Victorino, a long serving Maui advocate, and Don Couch, a circumspect yet fair-minded legislator. This shows that the case for the ban has become persuasive.
After many years of this issue moving through the council, its time has come. The polystyrene ban deserves public support. It's the right bill at the right time for Maui's ocean, waves, beaches and aina. It will be a proud day when the Maui County Council shows leadership and vision by passing this bill.