The passage of Bill 40 has a lot of hands wringing.
Last week, the Honolulu City Council passed a strict and sweeping bill that bans large amounts of single-use plastic and polystyrene foam currently used by Oahu restaurants and businesses.
The battle has become a familiar one: young, progressive environmentalists on one side and older, local business owners on the other. The latter expressing deep concern over the impact Hawaii’s ever-growing regulations will have on business, while progressives voice urgent concern over the impact some practices have on the environment and the future Hawaii in which they will reside.
It’s a hard conversation, and I unfortunately don’t think we’re getting any better at having it.
There’s actually a term for the phenomenon: they’re called “wicked” problems. Wicked environmental problems refer to large-scale social and policy challenges. They are identified by divergent political positions and social conflict over the particular issue.
In Hawaii, we have more than our fair share of wicked problems.
Businesses criticized the recent ban on the use of foam and plastic containers, as well as plastic utensils, as too restrictive. Pictured here is Belinda Lau, manager of the Wiki Wiki Drive Inn.
Wicked problems are notorious for the fact that they rarely come with a simple solution. Rather, any solutions, if they come at all, often exacerbate social and political divisions. These divisions undermine community resilience by dividing a community that should otherwise be finding inroads to work together to address significant environmental challenges.
So often, contributing factors to wicked problems are related to communication. Opponents, like the environmentalists and the business community, often don’t know how to talk to each other. The lack of communication and politics will, more often than not, drive these groups even further away from each other.
Although it often appears to the contrary, the business community of course cares about the environment, just as the environmentalists care about the economy.
But these groups need to start meeting somewhere else other than on opposite sides of the political battlefield.
Single-use plastics, despite all their economic benefit, are a plague on the earth. While it is undoubtedly painful to have just ripped that band-aid with a sweeping ban, a ban needed to happen.
Yet, rather than simply taking a victory lap, environmentalists need to be rolling up their sleeves to support local businesses and restaurants in this transition. Similar past transitions were not handled particularly well, like the plastic bag ban.
While I completely agree with the need for that ban as well, environmental groups and their funders should have immediately stepped up to have free reusable bags in all impacted businesses, or at least offered educational materials to help people transition smoothly and in an informed manner. I never saw anything to this effect occur.
Sweeping policy changes absent strong programs that increase environmental literacy in the affected communities only create confusion and resentment.
If environmentalists want to make this a true victory, offer every impacted Oahu restaurant and business a free year of compostable plates and utensils. Take the initiative to work directly with producers and suppliers of acceptable products to find a way, whether negotiating prices or paying differentials, so that businesses (and their customers) do not take the financial hit they are worried about.
Banning single use plastic is the right thing to do, but there’s also a right way to do it.
Hawaii should become known not only for its aggressive environmental policy reform, but also for being a community where this reform is widely embraced by residents and businesses alike. To do this, we need to respond to people’s fears and anxiety with overwhelming support and patience.
Single use plastic did not reach mass markets until the 1960s. For the majority of these islands’ history, we existed just fine without these luxuries. Yet, the gruesome reality is that even though they have only been in the islands 50 years, they will linger with us for another 1,000, as it can take up to 1,000 years for single use utensils to decompose.
If we care about our future, and I have no doubt we all do, we must learn a new normal, one that looks a lot like our past. This does not mean everyone is expected to become a taro farmer, but it does mean a return to paper bags, wooden chopsticks, and cloth diapers.
It will mean inconvenience. It will mean more work. It may mean more expense. But the reality is that right now, every day, we are borrowing against our children’s futures. We, those of us alive today, are expending nature’s resources at an unsustainable rate. If they, our children and their children, are to have any chance at reversing the damage we have done, we must begin to take reasonable steps for them now.
I can’t even imagine the extraordinary steps we are leaving them to take in the future.
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Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.