In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt won a New York Firm’s $10,000 reward for creating a substitute for ivory. His invention: synthetic plastic. The material was praised for relieving our impact on nature as it was inexpensive and could be molded to replace items previously made of wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. The idea with the invention of this material was that it could protect nature from the destructive nature of human consumption. Through the years, new plastics continued to be developed to fit different needs. The use of plastics in World War II is credited for one of the largest surges in plastic production. After the war, plastics hit the consumer market, replacing traditional materials such as paper and glass in packaging, wood in furniture, and steel in cars.
Flash forward to 2019. Dozens of concerned citizens are gathering at the Honolulu City Hall week after week to express their concerns about the plastic industry in Hawaii. The City and County of Honolulu has introduced a bill to ban the use of plastic materials in the take-out food industry. This bill, Bill 40, is set to ban a whole suite of plastics: plastic cutlery, cups, lids, plates, bags, etc. The majority of testifiers are in support of this bill, sharing their personal confrontations with plastic. Some testifiers stood in opposition of this bill, concerned that the city and county is not prepared to take such radical measures and that local businesses would suffer as a repercussion. What has happened in the last 150 years since the creation of this material that has brought us to where we are today?
Plastic debris in the oceans was first observed in the 1960s, the beginning of an environmental revolution in America. Since then, we have discovered a giant plastic soup more than twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean. In more recent years, graphic photographs of wildlife entanglement and carcasses of decaying wildlife with plastic-filled stomachs have led to ripples of awareness and action throughout the world.
The harm that plastic materials pose on our environment and its wildlife is no longer a debate. Researchers are continuously presenting the public with new findings. In 2018, researchers at the University of Hawaii found that as plastics break up in the environment, the greenhouse gases (gases linked to climate change) they release increases. In 2018, a study in the journal Science found that plastic debris increases the susceptibility of reef-building corals, one of the most biodiverse systems on the planet, to disease. In 2019, a report released by the World Wildlife Foundation found that of all the plastic that becomes waste, 87% of it is leaked into nature and becomes plastic pollution.
As we have come to understand the fact that plastic is a material intended to last forever and does just as intended, governments from around the world are fighting against this material through the introduction of plastic bans. In the United States, California, New York, and hundreds of municipalities ban or fine the use of plastic in some way. While seventeen other states claim it is illegal to ban plastic items, essentially banning bans of plastic. In Hawaii, Maui was the first county to ban plastic bags back in 2008. Many bans focus on one or a couple forms of single use plastic, but Bill 40 covers an array of them.
Throughout the legislative process of the bill, which was heard by the Public Health, Safety and Welfare Committee of the City and County of Honolulu, the committee received concern from local business owners and private interest groups in opposition of the bill claiming a negative impact to small businesses. The committee worked tirelessly, formulating draft after draft, to address all concerns to create a bill that would work for everyone. Though the signed bill is not a perfect solution, as with any bill, it will continue to be updated and modified to address the concerns of all stakeholders.
In closing arguments on the day of the bill’s final hearing, council member Kimberly Pine emotionally stated: “it is hard to believe that we are in a place where our indigenous people value everything- the sky, the air, the water, the ‘aina (the earth), and somewhere in the decades that have passed, we have forgotten how special this place is, and we have run our time.”
Though the response of most businesses will be to replace single-use plastic items with compostable ones, anything that is single use is inherently unsustainable. Ultimately fazing out single-use items completely, regardless of their composition, will be the most impactful response to the growing pollution epidemic.
What the bill covers:
The timeline of Bill 40 is summarized by three main deadlines for businesses and organizations throughout Oahu. The first deadline, on July 1, 2020, states that businesses may only provide plastic service ware when requested by the customer, when the customer gives an affirmative response when asked, or in a self-service area or dispenser. On the second deadline of January 1, 2021, plastic service ware (stirrers, straws, saran, utensils including spoons, forks and knives) will be banned from use and distribution by businesses. In addition, polystyrene foam food ware (hot and cold beverage cups, lids, bowls, “clamshells,” trays, egg cartons) made to provide food for consumption either on or off premises will be banned. The final ban, with a deadline of January 1, 2022, will cover plastic food ware (hot and cold beverage cups, lids, plates, bowls, “clamshells”, trays, and other hinged or lidded containers) intended to provide food for consumption on and off premises of a business.
What the bill does not cover:
Though the bill seeks to phase-out the majority of single-use plastic service ware on Oahu, it also seeks to protect the culture and lifestyles of its people. Bill 40 will not ban food related bags or wrappers such as musubi wraps, poi or chip bags and ice bags, among other things. It will also not ban foods that are packaged and prepared for distribution such as “grab-n-go” and “shelf-stable” items. For more details on the specific items covered by the bill, visit: zerowasteoahu.org/bill-40-honolulu-city-council