Implementation of Honolulu’s ban on plastic and polystyrene containers is being further delayed after businesses said supply chain challenges are preventing them from complying.  

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration granted a six-month exemption to the food industry this month after a request from Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President Sherry Menor-McNamara. Food vendors won’t have to comply with the law until Sept. 5.

In 2019, environmental advocates lauded the passage of Bill 40, which was aimed at reducing waste and the island’s reliance on oil-based products. Its implementation was designed to occur in two waves, but it hit some snags with the pandemic.

A ban on plastic utensils, among other measures, began in April 2021 but was suspended within a few months because of pandemic-related impacts on the restaurant industry. The prohibition on plastic and polystyrene containers was supposed to start on Jan. 1 of this year, but it was delayed for the same reasons.

Beefstew school lunch at Ala Wai Elementary School.
Polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam, containers are still frequently used in Honolulu.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Both bans were set to take effect on March 6, according to Henry Gabriel, Honolulu’s recycling program branch chief. But now, the six-month exemption will further stall the law’s impact.

The law allows the city to grant industry exemptions to the ban if there is evidence compliance would cause hardship. An applicant could meet that qualification if there are no acceptable alternatives to the banned products or if they’re not readily available due to market supply constraints, according to the law.

Menor-McNamara applied for a two-year industry exemption on Jan. 21 on behalf of the chamber as well as the Hawaii Restaurant Association, Retail Merchants of Hawaii and Hawaii Food Industry Association, according to the city’s letter.

Businesses have struggled to find alternative, compostable products because of global supply chain challenges, according to Lauren Zirbel, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association. 

Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara during launch of Hawaii on the Hill held at the Woodrow Wilson House, Washington DC. 7 june 2016.
Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President Sherry Menor-McNamara asked the city to waive the plastics and polystyrene ban. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“A lot of our members actually haven’t been able to secure suppliers for the compliant products,” she said. 

Environmental Services was sympathetic, Gabriel said, but gave the industry six months instead of two years.

“We saw there were container shortages, shipping delays, raw material shortages,” he said. “We granted those six months hoping they’d go through a couple of cycles of getting material, and come Sept. 6, distributors will have compliant materials.”

Gabriel said he doesn’t expect the city will grant another extension.

“That is where the city is drawing the line,” he said.

Menor-McNamara also asked for an exemption to the ban on plastic utensils, but Babcock said she failed to demonstrate hardship in providing plastic alternatives to customers. 

Menor-McNamara, who is running for lieutenant governor, did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

John Elkjer – owner of Sustainable Island Products, a wholesaler of plastic alternatives – said he hasn’t had a problem sourcing his products. 

“We don’t have a problem with supply chains,” he said. “We have a lot of inventory. We’re very prepared. We have no problems getting anything we need. There is a bit of a delay in some cases, but if you were prepared, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

Nicole Chatterson, executive director of  Zero Waste Oahu, said the six-month exemption puts unnecessary pressure on the island’s waste stream. A 2017 city report found that island consumers throw away tens of thousands of tons of plastic and polystyrene annually. 

“If the food industry worked on solutions for the last 10 years instead of arguing against change, we would’ve been able to already make the switch,” she said. 

“It’s a frustrating continuation of a process that could’ve been resolved a long time ago.”

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