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Should Honolulu’s Recycling Program Go Up in Flames?

Honolulu should be recycling even less than it does now.


(page 2 of 3)

Finding Utopia

Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


It turns out that when it comes to trash, O‘ahu has more in common with Europe and parts of Asia than we do with the rest of the United States. Inside H-POWER, there’s a mountain of trash the height of a seven-story building, seamed with rusty bicycles and tattered couches. An employee controls a car-size version of a vending-machine claw, to grab a wad of trash that feeds the incinerator. It’s mesmerizing. 


An almost identical scene is underway in municipalities across the globe, particularly those that, like O‘ahu, have relatively dense populations, electricity costs that are much higher than on the U.S. mainland and few new landfill options. Northern Europe, in particular, is full of waste-to-energy plants: Oslo, Norway’s capital, is so enthusiastic about burning rubbish to make electricity that it imports trash from nearby nations. Northern Europe is so efficient at trash disposal that NPR recently called it a “garbage utopia.” 


Developed and densely packed countries in East Asia are getting in on the act, too. According to Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan all send more than 40 percent of their trash to waste-to-energy plants. The Republic of Korea is building waste-to-energy capacity so fast that it won the global Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council Award for 2014. Honolulu City Council chair Ernie Martin describes visiting Korea and being surprised that they were “actually, now, mining their landfill to use as a fuel source.” 


By contrast, there have been few, if any, new waste-to-energy plants built in the United States since 1996, and the number of plants in operation has actually declined by about 20 percent in the past 15 years. The United States puts more than 60 percent of the trash it produces into a landfill, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s least-preferred method of trash disposal: It takes up space and gives off methane. 


Why the difference? A combination of factors. For one thing, the U.S. has plenty of landfill options. Even a crowded megalopolis like New York City can and does truck its trash across several state lines to landfills in Ohio. Then there’s the low cost of electricity across most of the U.S., which makes a waste-to-energy plant a less profitable or attractive proposition.


And there is political will. Many U.S. environmental groups, notably the  influential Sierra Club, have strict and long-standing policies opposing the incineration of municipal waste, citing concerns that waste-to-energy plants pollute the air and compete with recycling programs. 


“For them, it’s an absolute,” says Prevedouros. The Sierra Club’s stance against burning municipal waste was conceived in the 1980s and 1990s, when emissions of many pollutants from waste-to-energy plants were 50 to 100 times what they are today; that NPR segment said today’s waste-to-energy plants “barely pollute. The amount of hazardous chemicals that come out of these things is equivalent to a fireplace.” Asked to confirm that H-POWER doesn’t appreciably affect air quality, even at the immediate site, Manny Lanuevo, the city’s refuse chief, responded, “That’s true.”  


Source: Columbia University EEC


Reduce, Reuse... Incinerate?

City Department of Environmental Services director Lori Kahikina in the H-POWER control room. 
Photos: Aaron Yoshino


Lori Kahikina, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services (which oversees our trash disposal), admits she wishes Honolulu was recycling even less than it does. “I have to be truthful,” says Kahikina.


“I do have a hard time with recycling. It had its purpose before H-POWER came along, because all those recyclables were going into the landfill. It made sense to get as much as you could out of the landfill. But now, economically, it doesn’t make sense for Hawai‘i.” – Lori Kahikina 


She adds that it doesn’t make environmental sense, either: “There’s no process plant here. We’re shipping it off-island. You’re burning fossil fuel. Environmentally it’s not feasible, if you look at it just from Hawai‘i’s point of view.” (She adds quickly that, from a global standpoint, it’s good to make things out of other things.)


It’s an idea that’s hard for many to wrap their heads around in 2015. The importance of recycling has been drilled into us for decades, with environmental organizations leading the charge in the U.S., and the campaign has been effective: We feel virtuous when we put something into the blue bin, and regretful when we put something into the gray bin. The EPA built that hierarchy into its policy, ranking recycling and composting second only in preference to not producing the trash in the first place; waste-to-energy comes third in that hierarchy. That value system also shows up in the City and County of Honolulu, where recycling and composting are mandatory for government and large businesses. The city’s Department of Environmental Services website features pages and pages on recycling, including links to recycling songs for schoolchildren to sing.


But a number of factors have made recycling a much less fiscally realistic or environmentally friendly option than it is on the continental U.S.—or even than it used to be in Hawai‘i. Garbage collection and disposal, which Mayor Kirk Caldwell says is “one of the city’s biggest expenses,” has just gotten even more expensive. The recycling industry has become globalized and with globalization comes long travel distances and vulnerability to politics and price fluctuations on the other side of the world. 


Until two years ago, the city was “actually making a profit” on recycling, says Kahikina, despite shipping fees to China that RRR Recycling’s Henriques says can be many times the cost of a similar load on an L.A.-China route. But, two years ago, China, which by some estimates processes about two-thirds of America’s recycling, announced “Operation Green Fence” and got picky about what recyclables, and what levels of contamination, it would accept.


That, and new state Health Department regulations, drove the price of processing recycling sky-high, even as the prices RRR was able to fetch for its lower-value recyclables tumbled. “Cardboard is at a very low point right now,” says Henriques. “So is newspaper. It’s super low, and has been kind of hanging there all year.” Plastic is “OK,” says Henriques, but pundits surmise that an ever-richer China, now producing enough of its own trash, will not raise its offers any time soon. Kahikina estimates that the city’s once-profitable recycling program is now costing the city more than a million dollars per year. 



Add that to the carbon footprint of shipping recyclables overseas, and the reasons not to recycle certain materials mount. “Our biggest problem is that our economy is so small it doesn’t justify an aluminum plant or a plastics plant,” says Prevedouros. “Then, essentially, we have to burn fossil fuel to return (recyclables) to California or somewhere else to make something useful.”


It’s not only engineers like Prevedouros and Kahikina who say that this is an issue worth examining. We asked Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the renewable-energy-focused environmental advocacy group Blue Planet Foundation, whether it made environmental sense to recycle in Hawai‘i. His answer: “That’s a great question. There is clearly energy input in moving the stuff across the ocean.” It would be different, says Mikulina, if the ships were coming to Hawai‘i anyway and could be filled on the return journey for lower rates (what the industry calls back-haul). But “if you’re spending just as much energy shipping the stuff there and processing it, then it doesn’t make sense.” Henriques said RRR doesn’t get back-haul rates. 


There’s another million-dollar incentive that’s coming from H-POWER itself: since H-POWER expanded its capacity significantly in 2012, adding a third boiler, the city has also been paying Covanta for the annual incineration of a minimum of 800,000 tons of trash, even though currently it only produces 680,000 tons. It’s called a “put or pay” agreement, and was based on projected capacity before the economy crashed in 2008, reducing trash production. With the recent opening of H-POWER’s $10-million sludge injection facility, which adds sewage waste to the heap, that number is set to climb to about 720,000 tons, but the shortfall still leaves the county 80,000 tons, and nearly a million dollars, short.


One might expect Anthony Aalto, the chair of the Sierra Club’s O‘ahu Group, to espouse a firm, even strident, stand against diverting recyclables to H-POWER. Instead, he gives a nuanced take that he says is his own personal feeling rather than the Sierra Club’s official line. Aalto spoke about making sometimes counterintuitive choices in a complex, real-world environment where the stakes are high and people are all feeling their way forward.


Aalto recalled his time as a member of the city’s sustainable-building task force: “We were in the ironic position of having to recommend that the city stop the practice of recycling glass in asphalt,” Aalto says, because existing regulations meant that the process created much more waste than it saved. “That’s what happens sometimes, as you try to move ahead and become more progressive. We learn things along the way.”


What did that mean for recyclables and H-POWER? “When you ask a question about whether it’s actually greener to (send trash to H-POWER) than to ship our recyclables to the Mainland or to Asia—I haven’t seen the statistics, but if it’s true that it’s causing us to consume more energy, then that might be something we would have to look at,” Aalto says.


Waste-to-energy plants weren’t always a better alternative. Until the EPA introduced its industry pollution (MACT) standards in 1990, emissions for the plants were high, and in the early-adopter United States, it meant that they got a bad reputation that has lingered. Landfills, which emit methane as the trash decomposes, have improved, too: At Waimānalo Gulch, the methane emitted is captured and burned off. The process does produce some carbon dioxide, but methane is 18 times worse, from a global warming standpoint.


Regulations, right now, also require the city and large businesses to recycle. So, a change in recycling practices would mean a change in regulations. 


“I think the public is slowly starting to understand,” says Kahikina. “I was at a meeting in Waikīkī, and one of the hotel owners approached me and said, ‘Why are we recycling? Doesn’t it cost money? Aren’t we using fossil fuel to ship it? Why aren’t we just burning it all?’ And I said, ‘Are you trying to get me shot? You’re sounding like me!’ People are realizing that H-POWER is a feasible option.” 

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