Should Hawai‘i Continue to Recycle? These Experts Say You Should Think Again
A City & County of Honolulu leader wants to recycle less because she says it doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally. Environmentalists say “refusing” and “reusing” are much better than recycling. Here’s what you should know.
This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of our sister publication, Hawai‘i Business Magazine.
Recycling is changing on O‘ahu and around the world, and RRR Recycling has to be flexible to cope with those changes.
RRR and many other U.S. companies couldn’t sell their recyclables to China earlier this year after officials there closed the border to yang lese, or foreign trash. Mountains of bales of cardboard and paper, protected from the elements by plastic sheets, piled up at RRR’s Campbell Industrial Park site as owner Dominic Henriques struggled to find buyers. Months went by and RRR finally moved the items at a loss. Henriques says he has found new markets for the recyclables and the backlog has not recurred, but it was a difficult period for the company.
“You don’t prepare for countries shutting down their doors. We move our material regularly but that was a super special case,” Henriques says.
RRR Recycling has been contracted by the city and county of Honolulu to process everything collected in residents’ blue bins since the city’s recycling initiative began in 2007. Roughly 160,000 blue bins are picked up every other week; RRR Recycling processed about 24,000 tons of material from those bins last year.
“Triple R takes the material commingled, mixed waste, in the blue cart,” says Michael O’Keefe, recycling branch chief at the city’s Department of Environmental Services’ Refuse Division. “All of the material we deliver: the cardboard, white and colored printer paper, newspaper, No. 1 and No. 2 plastics.” Other recyclable items that belong in the blue bin are glass bottles and jars, which Henriques has been able to find buyers for in California. HI-5 bottles and cans are generally high-quality materials that are easily moved out of state.
China began in 2013 to be more selective about what it would accept from other countries for recycling. Then on Jan. 1, 2018, a Chinese crackdown included a ban on the import of 24 types of recyclable material, including several types of postconsumer plastic scrap and unsorted paper. China also enforced a limit of 0.05 percent contamination for most recyclables entering the country, as opposed to the previous limit of 5 percent. Henriques says the lower limit is unrealistic and basically requires virgin material. He says one local example of virgin material is the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s off-print newspapers that never reach circulation and are transported directly to RRR’s facility, but such virgin material is rare in the recycling business.