EACP Committee Chair Shane Sinenci behind a collection of plastic waste from 30 days of Lahaina Intermediate School lunches

A bill to prohibit the use and sale of disposable plastic foodware in Maui County passed the Council’s Environmental, Agricultural, and Cultural Preservation Committee by a vote of 5-1 on Tuesday, Feb. 18, with Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura being the sole No vote (Councilmember Alice Lee was not present). The bill now heads to the full council for its first reading. While all councilmembers recognized the plastic ban as generally a good idea, legislators and testifiers grappled with potential impacts to small businesses, exemptions from the law, and the timeline for implementation. Overarching the debate were differences in the sense of urgency felt regarding the need to take action to restrict the use of – and thus waste created from – single-use plastics.

It’s an emerging theme in the civic discourse: As the need to change habits and policy toward the environment becomes more evident, discussions are less about whether problems exist, but rather how immediately and drastically to respond to crisis. Greta Thunberg’s indignant scolding of world leaders’ climate inaction, for example, is dismissed by conservative establishment figures like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who are keen to insult the teen’s understanding of economics. Sunrise Movement youth activists demand a bold Green New Deal that bans fracking and swiftly ends the use of fossil fuels, while presidential candidate Joe Biden argues such sharp change would be impossible and advocates for a gradual “transition.” 

In these cases where environmental action is needed (and we can agree by now, it seems, that change will be needed at least eventually), it tends to be young people who present the case for urgency: We have less than 12 years to drastically reduce emissions to avoid catastrophe according to the United Nations, Thunberg will say. Perhaps Biden leans into incrementalism because his climate policy advisor took more than a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry, Sunrise Movement youth activists will argue, further highlighting their call for grassroots action.

On Maui, with the single-use plastic foodware ban, it’s similar. With no objections, a group of 7th-graders from Iao Intermediate School was pushed to the front of Tuesday’s testimony queue so they could make it back to campus in time to catch the buses home. The students supported the plastic ban with a sense of urgency stoked by concern for a future world that, to them, looks bleak.

Iao Intermediate School students testify for the disposable plastic foodware ban

“This world is crumbling, and one of the largest contributors is plastic!” said student Sebastian Bautista. “With all due respect, councilmembers, it’s the generations of people after us that suffer the consequences of plastic… it’s not fair to those people who will be left to suffer the consequences of something we did to ruin the world. Banning single-use plastic here is one step closer to saving the world from plastic.”

“Today, we are all here because plastic has become a human issue that is affecting all of the Earth and its creatures,” said Ana Viernes, another student. “I realize that a ban on all single-use plastic may be unrealistic at this time, but all the little steps we take add up, creating possible solutions toward this problem. I would like to think I could live in a world where my children won’t ever know what single-use plastics are. Plastic is destroying our one and only home. Plastic versus Earth. Plastic is winning, so let’s fight back.”

On the basis of fact, there’s not much to dispute here. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last decade (and if you have, then you’ve probably encountered a fair share of microplastic), it’s now well known that plastic is a problem. The convenient, cheap, ubiquitous substance is as ecologically damaging as it has been useful. 

More than 300 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year, and eight million metric tons of it flows into our oceans annually, says the UN. While these utensils, bottles, wrappers, and bags are used and discarded, sometimes in mere minutes, plastic persists in the environment for hundreds of years or even longer, where it absorbs toxic chemicals, enters the food chain, kills wildlife, and releases greenhouse gas. By 2050, it’s been said, there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish biomass.

30 days of plastic waste from lunches at Lahaina Intermediate School. Poster made by Iao School students.

But what level of urgency is required or justified to address such a problem? That was the question that surrounded Tuesday’s discussion of the bill, which was first drafted by former Councilmember Elle Cochran back in December of 2018 and has only recently been resurrected by EACP Chair Councilmember Shane Sinenci. The question surfaced with the Department of Environmental Management’s recommendation that the effective date of the ban be pushed back six months, from July 2021 to January 2022.

“I think that this [bill] is quite comprehensive and I think it will allow the businesses more time to adjust and get ready as well as for our department to help to educate them and help to get everybody ready to compliant on the effective date,” said Tamara Farnsworth of the County Department of Environmental Management.

“It’s short-sighted of us to think that this [plastic problem] is going to disappear if by July 1 [2021] we’re going to do this ordinance,” said Councilmember Sugimura, advocating for more time. “I don’t want us to think that ‘This is a good thing, so let’s do it today.’ I think it’s huge and it’s something that we need to do. But let’s look at the impact.”

Councilmembers Kelly King and Mike Molina pushed against the extension, but later took a stance akin to that taken by Councilmember Tasha Kama, who concluded simply, “If the department’s asking for a little bit more time to get their job done and to do it well and efficiently and effectively, I think we should give them more time.” 

After the extension passed, Sugimura continued to show concern for small businesses that would be forced to adapt to a single-use plastic ban, like local food distributors Aloha Poi. However, it was noted, there is an exemption in the bill to allow for pre-packaged and distributed foods within plastic, such as bagged poi.

“I feel like we’re trying to rush to pass something,” Sugimura said. “It would be nice if we did [it] in phases. You know, plastic bag was done, polystyrene [styrofoam], and then maybe straws and cups… Single-use plastic disposable foodware ban right now I think is premature.”

Molina pointed out, though, that the bill was first introduced in December 2018, so businesses had some time to know the change would be coming. “It’s high time to take a stand on this,” he said, adding that he couldn’t keep “kicking the proverbial can down the road.” If there is a need for further public outreach, he reminded his colleagues, three councilmembers could vote to schedule a public hearing on the bill.

“We had the kids here, they’re talking about urgency,” said King. “They’re talking about their future. I think we need to make this a priority and we need to worry. We declared a climate emergency. This is part of climate action. So to me, I think we should move ahead with it. I don’t want to spend more time.”

After testifying, Iao School students and staff pose with single-use plastic ban supporters Councilmember Kelly King and Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund executive director Hannah Bernard. Photo courtesy Iao Intermediate School.

When I went to visit the students at Iao Intermediate School later to get their reactions to the committee’s vote, they were divided regarding the six-month extension and empathized with small business owners, but they also shared concerns that further extensions would test the limits of their ability to compromise, water down their message of the importance of weaning off single-use plastics, and allow continued pollution and environmental degradation.

“I think that’s too far,” said Jazlynmae Salva Badua on the six-month extension. “Even if we’re getting rid of plastic, we’ll still have to deal with [what is] still out there… it’ll take more years to get rid of everything.”

Student Fernando Rosete was OK with the extension, but warned, “if it’s extended for too long, then they might consider it something small and then they won’t see the urgency we did as when we first presented it to them.”

“The more time we wait, the more the problem just keeps growing,” added Ana Viernes.

“This is the world we’re going to grow up in,” said student Alyssa Ching. “I don’t want to see it torn down because we’re putting it off, we’re letting it go longer, we’re extending the date that we’re going to place this agreement upon.”

In the end, there has to be a limit to how long the council and local businesses are allowed to dither on weaning from single-use plastic, they agreed. While young people are often criticized for lacking the life experience to have input in such matters, the 7th-graders had an apt comparison, and likened the bill to a homework assignment that a student continues to ask for an extension on.

But also, the students reminded me, our old and established policies and habits can be as binding and as harmful as addictions. In such cases, the youth are a needed intervention, who with new and fresh perspective have the power, energy, and sense of urgency to end damaging habits and create the good practices which will shape the future for which they are destined.

“Every time I’ve read or watched an article about plastic, they almost always bring up how we have almost an addiction to plastic,” said Viernes. “Most addictions are very unhealthy and this is very unhealthy. Not even just for us, but the entire planet. And now we have to address it. A lot of people don’t want to take the hard road, because it’s hard. So now we have to fight and have to deal with something that’s been put off for so long. So now we have to fight even harder for something that we’ve become addicted to. [But] once you become addicted, there’s always a path to healing.”

What do you think?

Is the wave of youth activism a good thing? Why or why not? Are they correct for speaking up, or is the conversation and decision-making best left to adults?

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