Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Hawaii: Land of Lava and Bioplastic Cups

I recently returned from a week in Hawaii, where I traveled to the Big Island to compete in the Lavaman Olympic distance triathlon. I posted a race report on Facebook, but that's not what I want to discuss. I want to talk about Hawaii's approach to environmentally friendly products and packaging.

Plastic cups throughout the hotel where I stayed and at all the restaurants that I visited in the Kona area are marked as “compostable in industrial composting facilities.” These compostable cups are made from polylactic acid (PLA), a common bioplastic that uses agricultural waste rather than fossil fuels as its source. These specific cups, from the company World Centric, were marked “made from corn.” World Centric began as a nonprofit but realized it could have a greater impact as a B Corporation selling compostable cups, flatware, and fiberboard containers. These products are a better choice in Seattle than in Hawaii.

When I ordered individual pizzas from a grocery store in Waikoloa with a full-service deli, they came in uncoated fiberboard clamshell containers. Unlike similar containers that are shiny on the inside, these do not have a plastic liner and are therefore compostable. But when our family finished eating and I asked a store employee for the location of the compost bin, she pointed me to a trash can.

There are no industrial composting facilities on the Big Island of Hawaii. The state is eco-friendly, as befits one with so many miles of coastline and an interest in keeping the ocean free from plastics and other trash. The state of Hawaii has implemented e-waste recycling since 2008. But the only option for composting is in home gardens.

In Hilo, a town on the west side of the island, I passed by an e-waste processing facility. I also visited a small shop called Locavore that sells local produce and sundries, including earrings and wallets made from recycled materials. I bought some apple bananas, the variety of small bananas that I had seen growing high up in the trees nearby. I also bought a locally made deodorant in cardboard packaging. The label on the package says, “Discard container after use in your home garden and replenish the land.”

I spoke to the co-owner of Locavore and asked her about the lack of industrial composting. She explained that some groups are trying to get composting on the island. The arguments against it are typical: the millions of dollars in expense to build the facility and push-back from people who don’t want to see it in their neighborhood. An article in West Hawaii Today described the controversy surrounding the proposal to build a composting facility in Hilo.

If industrial composting comes to Hilo, it won’t be until at least 2020. Meanwhile, PLA cups aren’t helping. Restaurants on the Big Island should instead offer reusable cups—glass or plastic—as the default for any type of beverage, encourage customers to bring in refillable bottles for to-go orders, and save the disposables as a last resort. This is good advice even in cities with established industrial composting facilities and curbside collection of food waste compostable containers.