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Should Honolulu’s Recycling Program Go Up in Flames?

Honolulu should be recycling even less than it does now.


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In 2013, O‘ahu recycled 171,000 tons of ferrous metal, and 14,000 tons of nonferrous metal (including aluminum cans).
Photos: Aaron Yoshino


If you look at the amount of trash the City and County of Honolulu recycles, it seems we could do a lot better: only 38.6 percent in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. We lag way behind San Francisco, which claims a recycling rate of 80 percent, Los Angeles is at 76 percent, San Diego at 65 percent and Seattle at 60 percent. Even gritty Chicago recycles 58 percent of its trash. Sounds like we’ve got some catching up to do, right?


But wait, more local experts, including the director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services, are starting to argue the opposite: that Honolulu should be recycling even less than it does now.


What? Recycling everything you can possibly recycle is good … isn’t it? We dived into Honolulu’s municipal solid-waste disposal system to find out how technology is changing the way we think about the environmental impact—and the economics—of trash.


The Status Quo

The clawwwww! This trash, piled up at H-POWER, is destined to be burned and converted to electricity.


Here’s our current residential trash system, in a nutshell. If you live in a house on O‘ahu, you most likely are among the 160,000 households who put your gray, green and blue bins out by the curb. (The vast majority of high-rises pay for private pickup, and some residents in older neighborhoods—about 20,000—still have crews tossing trash into the backs of trucks by hand.) 


The green bin, for green waste—yard trimmings, grass clippings and Christmas trees—has a local story. About 100,000 tons a year of green waste gets trucked to Hawaiian Earth Products, in the shadow of the Wai‘anae Mountains. There, it becomes a dark, rich compost that contrasts vividly with the region’s famous red dirt. Three or four months later, the compost re-enters the market sold by the bag or truck bed, where it contributes to the healthy growth of next month’s garden.   


The blue bin is the world traveler. Recyclables—including metal cans, glass and plastic bottles, corrugated cardboard and office paper—head first to RRR Recycling Services, holder of the city’s recycling contract, where they are laboriously sorted (there’s a guy whose job it is to empty out those plastic bottles you left half-full, people, so please empty them yourself!) and then baled or dropped into a shipping container for reprocessing. Since we have no recycling facilities in-state, the contents of your blue bin have to cross an ocean to get remade. Glass gets shipped to private companies in California, says RRR’s owner, Dominic Henriques. Aluminum goes to Alabama; lower-value recyclables, such as plastic, cardboard and paper, take the slow boat to China.


The gray bin gets all the leftovers: the nonhazardous, nonbulky waste that can’t be processed with the green or blue bins, including caps from bottles, cereal boxes, your kid’s headless doll, broken wire hangers, empty ballpoint pens. If you’ve dismissed that gray bin as the boring, conventional, wasteful kind of garbage, it might be time to take another look. What happens to waste in our gray bins tells us a big part of why we lag behind other American cities in recycling, why we could lag still further … and why that could be a good thing, both for the environment and for the city’s coffers, which helps us taxpayers. 


In most places in the land-rich Other 49, that gray bin would go straight to a landfill. On O‘ahu, though, it goes to H-POWER, the county’s waste-to-energy plant in Kapolei, which has been operated by Covanta since 1990. H-POWER is a power plant that runs on trash; it burns the contents of the gray bin, heating steam to power a turbine that produces about 8 percent of O‘ahu’s electricity. At the same time, it reduces the volume of trash sent to a landfill by about 90 percent (the ash that’s left over after burning still goes to the landfill). In 2013, H-POWER incinerated 498,000 tons of trash, or 40.3 percent of our total municipal solid waste. Covanta’s Ahmad Sadri estimates that, for every ton of trash burned, a barrel of oil, plus the fossil fuel used to ship it here, is saved. In 2013, that would have been 498,000 barrels of oil we avoided shipping here.


“Trash is treasure,” says Panos Prevedouros, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UH Mānoa and a former mayoral candidate. “Not only do you make energy, you remove something that is bad.” Prevedouros adds that a waste-to-energy plant can make “serious money” charging tipping fees, selling its electricity to the utility and harvesting the valuable metals for what he calls “a win-win-win” situation: The plant helps the state meet its renewable energy goals, it keeps trash out of landfills and Covanta has revenue streams that gross about $125 million per year. Not too shabby for stuff we all throw away. 


The plant can burn just about anything (except glass and metals), but there are conflicting regulations that govern what is currently being burned. A key restriction is that no more than 10 percent of all H-POWER materials processed can be green waste. 

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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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