The City Council of Honolulu, Hawaii has decided to halt a vote on a bill that could have a serious economic impact on small businesses. Legislation recently introduced by Councilmember Stanley Chang sought to ban all forms of polystyrene foam foodservice items, which many restaurants, eateries and street vendors use for serving food and beverage items to customers every day. Foam products are generally the preferred single-use item in regards to food and beverage because they provide many amenities that consumers find appealing, and are an affordable product in the competitive foodservice industry.
The vote to implement Chang’s polystyrene foam ban has been postponed so that the council can take some time to understand exactly what a ban of this type would mean for their constituents. Several restaurateurs gathered at a June meeting of the committee on public works and sustainability to discuss how the ban would affect the bottom lines of their businesses. Many are frustrated that polystyrene foam alternative products, such as paper items, may cost nearly double or triple the amounts they are currently paying. Among the attendees was Harris Sukita, the owner of the Simply Ono lunchwagon, who noted that his business has been taking regulatory hits for many years. Sukita stated that should the bill be passed, his restaurants would be forced to make budget cuts somewhere, stating, “We can’t keep on biting the bullet. It’s either going to be service, food quality, or employees that we’re going to have to cut back on.”
Advocates of the foam ban often cite health concerns as a reason to avoid foam, but the science does not support this stance. Critics often confuse three words – styrene, polystyrene, and Styrofoam®- and use them interchangeably when they talk about the health concerns surrounding foam, but the three products are fundamentally different from one another. Styrene is an odorless and colorless liquid compound that occurs naturally in foods such as wheat, beef, strawberries, and coffee beans. FDA-approved polystyrene (the product behind the proposed foam ban) is a solid material that is derived from styrene, and it has been deemed safe for use in foodservice products for more than 50 years. Styrofoam® is a material that is a registered trademark of the Dow Chemical Company, and it should not be confused with polystyrene foam. Polystyrene foam has never been linked to cancer or other health problems and has long been considered safe by authoritative regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the European Commission/European Food Safety Authority.
Critics of single-use foam foodservice containers also point to the dangers that these items pose to marine life when they find their way into the ocean. Hawaii cares deeply about its famous waters and marine life, which is why the City Council of Honolulu is evaluating its anti-litter education programs as a way to reform consumer behavior and keep trash out of the ocean. Improper trash disposal is a consumer behavior problem that can be mitigated through anti-littering programs as well as a comprehensive analysis of the city’s existing waste management system.
Instead of passing the measure, the Honolulu public works and sustainability committee decided to defer the vote for further research and evaluation of single-use food service containers. The committee is expected to take into account the environmental challenges that foam alternatives, such as paper products, present: Hawaii lacks a commercial composting facility and, as a result, would be sending these alternative foodservice materials to HPOWER, Oahu’s energy-from-waste facility. Foam refuse is currently sent to HPOWER as well, where it is converted to energy far more efficiently than other materials due to its high air composition (up to 95%). Foam products are also manufactured locally in Hawaii, which gives them a favorable environmental footprint compared to alternative materials that need to be shipped to the island. The committee will consider these environmental realities in addition to the economic challenges that a foam ban in Hawaii presents.