With the introduction of a new bill to ban “Styrofoam” food containers, a lot of misinformation is floating around like plastic debris in the ocean.

First of all, Styrofoam is a misnomer — and a registered product of Dow Chemical — and these containers are actually made of expanded polystyrene or EPS foam. EPS foam containers are the most toxic and least recycled forms of plastic (less than 1 percent), as well as one of the most littered.

We are members of a large coalition of groups who are working to educate people about the environmental harms and health risks of EPS foam and other single-use plastics. Because EPS foam is more than 90 percent air, these products break apart easily, never biodegrade and end up as litter in our parks, streets and waterways. Litter from these products often end up on our beaches and in the ocean.

Styrofoam cups

Many, many Strofoam cups.

www.flickr.com/photos/nualabugeye

The Surfrider Foundation has done coastal cleanups around Oahu, and foam products are one of the top forms of litter found at most beaches.

These toxic micro-plastics are often deadly when consumed by sea turtles and other marine creatures who mistake them for food. More than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year due to entanglement and ingestion of plastics.

Backed by many supporters and scientific evidence, Honolulu City Council Members Stanley Chang and Ann Kobayashi introduced Bill 40 to ban EPS foam food service containers on Oahu.

This is a clear and responsible action that will have an immediate and lasting effect on the health and well-being of our islands. Some critics in the foam and food industry will say that these products are safe, cheap and a good source of fuel for H-Power. But the truth is that these petro-chemical containers leach styrene into hot, oily or acidic foods; they are rarely recycled and expensive to clean up; and they release toxic chemicals when burned.

By contrast, compostable products are a much better alternative. Compostable containers are widely available, non-toxic and made from renewable resources; they have a much higher fuel value when burned at H-power and do not pose an environmental threat. These compostable products are also safe to microwave, unlike EPS foam containers, which should never be put in the microwave. It is time to start making changes that will lead the way toward a healthy sustainable future for Hawaii.

The evidence linking Styrofoam and styrene to environmental degradation and human health issues is clear and well documented. A great deal of new research on the health hazards of styrene has been done in the half-century since the FDA gave approval to Styrofoam in 1958.

In fact, in 2010 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added styrene to the list of substances likely to cause cancer in humans and as a known carcinogen for animals.

The study on workers exposed to styrene showed evidence of lymphohematopoietic cancer and genetic damage in the white blood cell. Styrene has been on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ list of known neurotoxins and linked to a slew of respiratory illnesses for decades.

Although local company officials at KYD and Hawaii Foam Products say their containers are harmless, it would be good to test some of their workers for exposure to styrene and other carcinogens, not to mention their customers.  An EPA study found that 100 percent of all Americans tested have styrene in their fat tissues. That’s a scientific fact and an unacceptable health risk.

Compostable products currently only cost a little more than EPS foam containers, yet this is a price most consumers have shown they are willing to take on themselves. When the total costs are added up, it amounts to a small increase per year for the average Hawaii diner.

More than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have had bans on EPS foam in place, and the number is growing each year. All of these businesses either absorbed the small additional costs for compostable products or raised their prices a few pennies, without suffering any hardship. If companies were smart and adaptive, they would see the writing on the wall and move toward compostable containers.

Then, there’s the matter of waste. No matter how they are disposed, compostable products perform better than EPS foam. Currently on Oahu, disposable food service items end up in one of three places: the landfill, H-power or in the environment. If compostable items are sent to landfill or end up in the environment, they pose little or no threat to animals due to their nontoxic nature.

When burned at H-Power, compostable containers will produce almost double the electricity per unit that EPS foam produces, yet without the highly toxic ash and styrene polluting our air. Compostable containers will eventually and ideally be composted. In fact, a commercial composting facility is in the works on Oahu right now.

Manufacturing compostables is also far less toxic because it takes advantage of a readily renewable material (plant fibers). But EPS foam is made from fossil fuels, a limited, non-renewable resource that contributes to pollution, climate change and sea level rise. Manufacturing of compostable food service items is a better solution for Hawaii, and at least three different organizations are already working to get it started.

In 2008, Styrophobia reached out to KYD to see if they wanted to work together to manufacture compostable containers. But they declined and decided to stick with EPS foam and fight any efforts to move toward safer products. Since then, however, KYD has diversified their product line, which now includes compostable products. So there’s hope that they have seen the writing on the wall and will adapt to produce healthier, more eco-friendly products.

Hawaii’s natural beauty is what appeals to locals and visitors alike, and most of us share a deep concern about the health of our Islands.  A gradual transition from toxic EPS foam containers to safe compostable products is a simple step we can take to achieve long-lasting benefits.

Why would companies and customers continue using harmful products when a better alternative is readily available?

We can either cling to the past or embrace the future. By supporting Bill 40 and the ban on EPS Foam products, we can move toward a healthier future for our people and the environment.

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