Our County Council stoked an old fire this week. It's about foam. The council heard testimony both for and against a ban on plastic foam containers that would essentially force food vendors to look at an alternative to the most common way to serve plate lunches and takeout food.
We've all seen and used the product before. The white, round clamshell containers are found in nearly every eatery that serves food from a counter. Polystyrene - the generic term for what everyone calls Styrofoam - containers are commonly associated with our beloved plate lunches.
The ban was first proposed six years ago. Back then, the council deferred action so it could study the issue some more. Now, the council has revived consideration of the bill because it's been deferred for so long.
Despite the long respite, the exact same arguments both for and against the bill emerged. Not surprisingly, there are business owners against the bill. Food vendors and the Maui Chamber of Commerce president testified in opposition of the legislation. The polystyrene containers are cheap, light and easy to find. Switching to paper containers may be nice, some have argued, but it would be too costly. Biodegradable products are more expensive than their polystyrene counterpart. (Back in 2009, when the bill first came up for debate, it was estimated that a plate lunch would cost an extra 15 to 25 cents.)
This isn't the first time the business community has raised a hue and cry over containers. In 2011, businesses opposed the ban on plastic bags. Their reasoning was eerily similar: paper is too costly, it will hurt sales, and we will be forced to pass the cost on to the customer. Despite these objections, the bill carried the day, the ban went into effect, and things started to change for the better.
Suddenly, it no longer required seven or eight thin plastic bags to bag a handful of groceries. My mother missed plastic bags so my brother in Honolulu would bring them over for her whenever he visited. It was like we were living in some Eastern European communist country, and my brother from the West would smuggle in plastic bags for us.
But eventually, her need for plastic bags waned, and she started keeping her reusable bags in the car. She wasn't alone. Consumer habits on Maui did, in fact, start to change. Now after four years most folks don't even notice the ban.
That is, until you go to Honolulu. Shopping there is still a shock for me when the plastic bags are used at the grocery stores, gas stations and other points of sale. Not only that, they're also in the gutters, flapping in tree branches, and pressed up against chain-link fences. Seems like the ban on bags wasn't so bad after all.
Now polystyrene is on the chopping block.
We aren't the only ones grappling with a ban like this. The north shore town of Kilauea on Kauai has already implemented a ban. A big sign greets visitors to the town reading: "Welcome to Kilauea. A Styrofoam Free Community." The efforts to rid the town of plastic foam food containers were spearheaded by the Kauai Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and other nonprofit organizations on the island. Some townships on the Mainland are also following suit. Perhaps Maui is next.
So why ban them in the first place? Well, first there's the environment. For a long time now, scientists have told us that polystyrene is nonbiodegradable. That means it will not break down like paper products. It's estimated that that takeout box we use once will take hundreds of years to break down and return to the earth.
Apparently it's not just the environment that suffers. In the cities that have banned polystyrene, lawmakers have cited a link between styrene - which is contained in polystyrene - and cancer. And this month, the National Research Council announced that styrene "is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." Whatever that means.
Questions remain. How exactly does styrene in a plastic cup get into the human body? Does it come from breaking down in the environment? But what about all this stuff about containers taking hundreds of years to break down in the first place? Apparently nobody testifying before the council this week had any expertise on this issue, and the bill was shelved for another time (yet again).
And so action has been deferred. For now, we can save a few cents and still get takeout in a bright, white polystyrene container. A container that will take centuries to dissolve and a container that could be "reasonably anticipated" to contain carcinogens. Until a more definitive study comes out, I guess we can enjoy the bright, white, nonbiodegradable and possibly cancer-causing clamshells holding the food we eat.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."