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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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What Goes Where —The New Wisdom

Photo: Aaron Yoshino


We asked local experts what they recommended in terms of sorting trash. What gets recycled, and what should go straight into the trash?




Aluminum is everybody’s no-brainer. “Aluminum, no doubt, recycle,” says Mikulina, citing the high environmental and financial cost of extracting new aluminum. Prevedouros agrees, adding that aluminum crushes easily into shippable blocks, is “infinitely recyclable” (meaning that you can create high-quality products out of it multiple times) and commands a high price.




If you want. H-POWER can’t turn glass into electricity. Instead of burning, says Chris Baker, Covanta’s CFO, “glass melts in the boiler, and causes problems with the combustion process.” Technology exists to make use of the glass locally, as road base, but real-world complexities currently make that approach impractical. It’s a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all policy for recyclables when Jeff Mikulina of Blue Planet Foundation tells me, only half joking, “I’m a tree-hugger through and through, and I wouldn’t lose sleep if you dumped (the glass) in the ocean. It’s sand in another form.”




“The best destination for plastic would be the waste-to-energy (plant). Clearly,” says Prevedouros. Or, as Mikulina suggests, “don’t make it in the first place.” By weight, plastic makes up only a small percentage of municipal trash, but it presents an outsize environmental headache, getting into the water system and polluting the oceans. The reasons we love plastic, its longevity and strength, are also the reasons we hate it: Most plastics do not biodegrade. The Sierra Club’s Anthony Aalto points out that scientist David Suzuki has estimated that each human body in the industrialized world contains about a pound of plastic, ingested in water and food.


Paper and Cardboard


Paper and cardboard are heavy and hard to compact further for efficient shipping to recycling plants; they burn beautifully, and are depressed in price. “Paper, oh, my God, it’s really perverse to recycle. We’re losing the opportunity to make energy, and we’re wasting more fossil fuel to ship it somewhere else. If you have paper, put it in the gray bin,” says Prevedouros.


Green Waste

Jury’s Out

“Why are you composting it? It’s ready to burn,” says Prevedouros. The 100,000 tons of green waste O‘ahu produces each year are free biomass, just like those biomass-to-energy plants on Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island. Kahikina is more circumspect, saying that, in purely economic terms, it makes sense to burn O‘ahu’s green waste, but she adds that “We need to focus not only on the economic aspect, but also on the social and environmental aspect as well.” The green-waste loop is already local, creating jobs and keeping money in-state. As good a fuel as it is, it may make sense to leave green waste as is.



Burn Those Books!

Doing the right thing can sometimes get complicated. You know those Think Yellow Go Green phone-book recycling campaigns, where you can drop off your phone book at select locations to be recycled? They’re going straight to H-POWER. “Phone books are made of low-grade papers, and they keep jamming the sort line at the Materials Recovery Facility,” says Lori Kahikina, director of Honolulu’s Department of Environmental Services. “We’re telling (people) to throw the phone books in the gray cart, and the phone book companies are telling them to throw them in the blue cart.” Phone book: gray bin



What about the new landfill?

Nothing brings out a vocal chorus of “Not in my backyard” like the prospect of a new landfill moving in. But who can blame people, really? Everybody makes trash, nobody wants other peoples’. Yet it all has to go somewhere. And when Waimānalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, our current site on the Wai‘anae coast, fills up, it will have to go somewhere else. Right?


Well, maybe not. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says H-POWER’s recently expanded capacity and other technological developments in the pipeline mean that O‘ahu will likely never need another landfill. “Rather than opening a new landfill, with all of the environmental and neighborhood impact that would create, our goal is to end the need for a daily landfill on O‘ahu using technology. We are already much of the way there,” says Caldwell. 


As it stands, increased burning of trash and the inclusion of new waste streams at H-POWER, which reduces trash volume by 90 percent, has extended Waimānalo Gulch’s lifespan another 25 to 40 years. O‘ahu already diverts around 80 percent of its municipal solid waste from the landfill. Keeping out that last 20 percent will come, in part, says Caldwell, from adding capabilities to H-POWER, of which the city’s new sludge intake system, which burns sewage sludge that formerly went into the landfill, is the first. 



Honolulu Chucks the Plastic Bag

The single-use plastic grocery bag ban that went into effect for O‘ahu on July 1 turns out to be more about litter—the trash that escapes the waste disposal system—than it is about reducing the volume of trash. “They’re just the hardest things to control,” says Joseph Whelan, general manager of O‘ahu’s main landfill at Waimānalo Gulch on the Leeward Coast, where the bags are an operational headache on windy days. “The volume is so great, compared to the weight, that any little bit of wind picks them up.”


The world goes through an estimated 1 trillion single-use plastic bags every year, 1 billion of those in the United States. They float in the wind but come to rest on open water, clogging up waterways, drainage systems (Bangladesh rolled out the first national plastic bag ban in 2002, when the bags were found to have contributed to devastating floods) and the ocean. They’re also exceptionally durable, so the problem only builds up over time. 


“Most plastics are not biodegradable,” says Anthony Aalto, O‘ahu Group chair of the Sierra Club. “The amount of plastic now being found in birds, in fish, is just out of control.”


Ernie Martin, Chair of the Honolulu City Council, introduced the legislation and helped push it through. “We are surrounded by ocean,” says Martin. “It’s a precious commodity within our state. We’re the biggest county (in Hawai‘i), of almost a million people. A ban just made sense.”



Watch This Trashy Movie

For anyone interested in learning more about Hawai‘i’s waste cycle, the Courtyard Cinema series is screening the documentary movie Just Eat It on July 9 at Ward Villages’ IBM Building. Billed as “a food waste story,” Just Eat It explores the ways in which food is thrown away—and sometimes rescued. Stick around after the movie for a salon-style talk story with key experts and scholars. Tickets are free, but must be purchased ahead of time; visit hiff.org/content/category/courtyard-cinema for more information.





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