Eco-Conscious Hawaii Could Become First US State to Ban Plastics at Restaurants

March 23, 2019 Updated: March 23, 2019

Hawaii is stepping up its environmental activism and could become the first state in America to ban single-use plastics at restaurants. The liberal state has a history of championing the environment, already backing renewable energy and prohibiting the use of sunscreen ingredients that damage coral reefs. Maui and Hawaii—the “Big Island”—have also banned polystyrene foam containers.

The state in its entirety became the first to ban plastic bags back in 2015.

Hawaii could be the first state to ban most plastics used at restaurants (©AP | Audrey McAvoy)

State Sen. Mike Gabbard is lead author of the new proposal, which would prohibit Hawaii’s restaurants from using plastic drink bottles, utensils, stirring sticks, bags, and straws that contribute to devastating ocean pollution. The ambitious bill would come into full effect by 2022.

California has already banned full-service restaurants from giving out plastic straws as a matter of course. Seattle and San Francisco are not far behind, having themselves banned some single-use plastics. But Hawaii is going one step further.

Takeout food from the Wiki Wiki Drive Inn, served in a styrofoam container (©AP | Audrey McAvoy)

As reported by Komo News, Gabbard explains why. “We have this reputation of setting the example for the world to follow,” he shared with the Senate, “and that’s what we’re trying to do here. Our state can once again take the lead in protecting our environment.”

Hawaii is surrounded by ocean. The islands’ beaches and coastlines provide homes and livelihoods to a huge percentage of the population, and tourism is booming. “Going big reducing on single-use plastics makes a lot of sense and is doable,” Gabbard stated.

Illustration – Shutterstock | Larina Marina

An estimated 95 percent of the world’s plastic packaging is thrown away after one use. Discarded plastic litters the oceans and often washes up on otherwise idyllic beaches as a stark reminder of the slow-burn devastation our collective waste is effecting on the environment. Stuart Coleman, Hawaii manager for the Surfrider Foundation, informed that plastics also contribute to climate change because non-renewable oil is used in their production.

Eric S.S. Wong co-owns two fast food eateries on Oahu and represents a demographic whose daily lives would be impacted by the new anti-plastic bill. Wong is concerned about rising expenditure. He is liable for health insurance for his employees, not to mention a potential, forthcoming minimum wage increase, and ditching cheap plastic packaging would be a blow to his finances.

Customers line up at Eric S.S. Wong’s popular takeout in Honolulu (©AP | Audrey McAvoy)

“Now all of a sudden, your family’s $30 dining experience became $37 or $38,” Wong explained to Komo News. Biodegradable boxes cost twice as much as their disposable counterparts, he said, and this would have to be reflected in the price of the food.

Chris Yankowski of the Hawaii Restaurant Association is concerned about the 3,500 restaurants under their proverbial umbrella, claiming that the bill is too ambitious. It demands “too much too fast,” Yankowski said, as good, affordable alternatives to plastic products are not yet widely available. Hawaii is also notably devoid of composting facilities, so while compostable containers may be a brilliant idea, there is nowhere to collect them on the islands.

Hawaii is a liberal state with a history of championing the environment (©Shutterstock | blvdone)

“It’s almost like we want to do great things for the environment, but we’re not ready to handle it when we change it over,” Yankowski continued. With any luck, the bill heralds further changes that will make it easier for the islands’ hospitality industry to achieve their collective goal: reducing their consumption of single-use plastic. The state Senate remains optimistic and has passed the bill, which will now pass through House committees and eventually the governor.

Some restaurants are catching on: an online list of “ocean-friendly restaurants” identifies over 200 restaurants in Hawaii that have already eliminated foam containers and plastic bags from their stock.

“Mahalo” (Hawaiian for “thanks”), Hawaii, for setting a global precedent.


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