Food industry leaders won a major concession when sponsors of a Honolulu City Council bill to restrict single-use plastics agreed to exempt prepackaged products.

They correctly argued the exemption was needed so that local businesses wouldn’t be hamstrung in competition with mainland companies.

That some business organizations — including Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association — continue to oppose Bill 40 makes them look environmentally unfriendly.

A legally enforced move away from the use of plastic utensils and straws and plastic or polystyrene foam beverage cups, plates and containers is long overdue and more urgently needed than ever.

Plastic debris is a perpetual problem on Oahu’s North Shore.

Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Marine life is dying because of plastic pollution, and as Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency pointed out in a statement supporting the bill, “significant amounts of microplastics are being ingested by humans through the food we eat and the water we drink.”

Office director Joshua Stanbro went on to note that “single-use plastics also clog our storm drains and waterways, such that when storms or heavy rains come to our island, the prospect for flooding is increased, increasing the risk to public safety and property.”

Bill 40, which the full City Council is expected to consider Dec. 4, is a modest and reasonable step to follow up on the bans on thin plastic bags that have now been adopted county by county throughout the islands. Mayor Kirk Caldwell has indicated that he will sign it.

The legislation contains plenty of provisions to avoid placing an undue hardship on Honolulu businesses, including tiered implementation:

  • The Department of Environmental Services, which would be tasked with overseeing the law, would begin an education program by Jan. 1, 2020.
  • As of Jan. 1, 2021, food vendors would be prohibited from selling prepared food in polystyrene foam food ware (cups, plates, bowls, trays, etc.) or providing disposable plastic straws and utensils to customers unless they request it or obtain them in a self-service area.
  • Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, food vendors would be prohibited from selling prepared food in disposable plastic food ware, and businesses that are not food vendors would no longer be allowed to sell disposable plastic or polystyrene foam food ware.

There are exceptions galore — they make up the largest part of the bill. Hardship exemptions of up to four years would be available for vendors who can show they aren’t able to immediately come up with alternatives to disposable plastic and polystyrene foam.

What does it say to the rest of the world if we are unwilling to do what we can to clean up our own back yards?

Some opponents of Bill 40 say four years might not be long enough, but that seems ludicrous when some food vendors are already avoiding the use of these products and functioning just fine.

Opponents have also argued that most of Hawaii’s plastic pollution originates elsewhere and thus would not be affected by the legislation.

Pacific islands are indeed vulnerable to pollution and carbon emissions that they can do nothing about. But what does it say to the rest of the world if we are unwilling to do what we can to clean up our own back yards?

While passage of the council proposal would make Oahu the strictest island county when it comes to regulating single-use plastics, similar steps have already been taken in mainland cities such as Seattle and San Francisco.

There comes a time when our leaders in the public and private sectors must stop talking issues to death and take action. When it comes to Bill 40, that time has arrived.

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