“Looks like it’s dead,” Sen. Will Espero said Thursday of his bill to prohibit food vendors from using Styrofoam and other polystyrene containers.

Environmentalists argue that the lightweight, single-use containers end up littering beaches and parks, eventually harming wildlife.

It was up to Sen. Rosalyn Baker, chair of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, to schedule a joint committee hearing for the bill, SB 1109, before Friday’s deadline.

Baker did not respond to requests for comments Thursday about why she failed to do so.

Aaron Char leads marchers up Fort Street Mall towards Pali Longs Drugs to encourage the City to close the loophole in the plastic bag ban and the State to pass a ban on syrofoam food containers. 10 feb 2017
Aaron Char led marchers up Fort Street Mall to encourage the state to pass a ban on plastic foam food containers and the city of Honolulu to close a loophole in its plastic bag ban. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Almost 100 people testified before a joint committee hearing for the bill in early February. Most supported the bill.

A week later, members of local environmental organizations held a “Trashion show” to call on the state to support the plastic foam container ban and a bill before the Honolulu City Council to close a loophole in the current plastic bag ban. The demonstrators wore outfits made of Styrofoam containers and plastic bags.

Since 2009, six similar bills have been introduced in legislative sessions in Hawaii. Most never made it to a committee hearing.

In his three years working with the Surfrider Foundation, Rafael Bergstrom has watched similar bills die despite growing support for the ban. He said when committee chairs don’t schedule hearings for popular bills, they are limiting public engagement in the legislative process.

“Bills are being decided behind closed doors without the opportunity for public discourse,” Bergstrom said.

Senator Rosalyn Baker rises in support of veto in special session at the Legislature. 20 july 2016
Senator Rosalyn Baker, chair of the Senate Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, would not comment on her decision to not schedule a hearing for a bill to ban the use of plastic foam containers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Environmental groups and a slew of individuals also submitted testimony online in support of the bill. Most cited concerns about environmental damage.

“During albatross season, the (Northwestern Hawaiian) islands are covered in the carcasses of dead albatross. Their rotting bodies reveal stomachs filled with plastic, including pieces of foam,” Megan Onuma wrote in testimony. Onuma is a graduate student in Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii.

The Hawaii Food Industry Association and the Hawaii Retail Merchants of Hawaii were among those who opposed the bill. The industry representatives cited faults in biodegradable alternatives to plastic foam containers.

It’s important to keep the products on the market because food vendors haven’t found an alternative for serving extremely hot items in, said Lauren Zirbel of the food industry association.

Opponents also expressed concerns that the added cost of alternatives to plastic foam containers would burden small restaurants.

“Your plate lunch is going to go way up in cost,” said Tina Yamaki of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

She added that the merchants group wasn’t entirely against the ban, but wanted to find a more feasible solution that was good for the environment and business.

Rep Angus McKelvey speaks to Chair Della Au Belatti during joint house/senate conference committee. 29 april 2016
Rep Angus McKelvey prevented a proposed ban on plastic foam food containers from getting a hearing in the committee he chairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Bill 1545, banning the use of plastic foam containers in state facilities, including public schools, met a similar fate in the House. The Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection passed the bill, but it didn’t receive a hearing in the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee chaired by Rep. Angus McKelvey.

Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, said that public support for a ban is growing.

“For the first time we’re starting to get a feel of how much tax payers dollars are being spent cleaning up,” said Lee.

Countywide bans have come under consideration on Kauai, Hawaii Island and Oahu, but none has passed. The fate of a statewide ban still depends on a handful of committee chairs.

“We give the chairs a lot of leeway,” Espero said.

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